EPA administrator: Hydraulic fracturing regs aren’t a given

The Environmental Protection Agency is close to launching a broad study on hydraulic fracturing but the probe doesn’t guarantee federal regulation of the technique, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said today.

Jackson said the agency is about to offer a blueprint for the congressionally mandated study of hydraulic fracturing, following hearings around the country on the scope of the probe late last year.

“We expect, within the next month or two, to have the work plan for our study finished,” Jackson said. “This study will take a while.”

The EPA probe will examine the safety of the technique that is being used to unlock natural gas from shale nationwide. The process involves injecting mixtures of water, sand and chemicals seep underground and under high pressure to break up shale rock formations and produce natural gas.

But environmentalists warn that natural gas can escape out of poorly designed and secured wells, causing risks of explosion and water contamination. And they warn that harmful chemicals used in fracturing can taint nearby water sources.

Right now, the process is regulated by state and local governments, but some lawmakers want to change that dynamic and empower the EPA to regulate hydraulic fracturing under the Clean Water Act. Separately, the Interior Department is considering whether to impose chemical disclosure requirements or other mandates for hydraulic fracturing on federal land.

Jackson told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that the EPA study will help determine whether the current state-based regulation is sufficient.

“Many localities (and) many states regulate various aspects of the drilling process,” Jackson said. “One thing I think EPA can do to add to the body of knowledge is to determine whether there are any holes in that regulatory structure.”

But that doesn’t mean the probe will definitely lead to new federal fracturing rules.

“It’s not necessarily federal regulation that will be needed. It could be. I’m not prejudging that,” Jackson said. “There may be a need for a federal role — we simply don’t know.”

Concerns about environmental damage have fed protests and prompted an executive order in New York that bans hydraulic fracturing in the state until July 1.

Oil and gas industry leaders have been trying to quell the public criticism by uniting to develop a voluntary registry that will include information on the chemicals used in fracturing fluids.

On Wednesday, the American Petroleum Institute also revealed a new document outlining the best practices for producers to reduce runoff from fracturing sites. API had previously laid out the best practices for constructing natural gas wells that will be hydraulically fractured and water management at those sites.

Jackson said the EPA probe could help alleviate public skepticism about the safety of hydraulic fracturing.

“What would give the American people comfort with all they are seeing with this technology is the knowledge that regulators are not backing away from looking at it,” Jackson said. Instead, regulators “are doing everything we can to ensure that we have good science.”

Jackson’s appearance before the Senate environment panel was designed to focus on water pollution, but instead for hours today she fielded criticism about the EPA’s regulation of greenhouse gas emissions and industrial boilers.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., who has proposed legislation that would block EPA’s power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming, said the agency’s mandates would hurt the U.S. economy.

“Congress didn’t approve this sweeping, job-crushing idea,” Barrasso said. “Anti-job activists did — and they did it behind closed doors at the EPA.”

Lawmakers are already paving the way for a fight on the issue early this year. Just weeks into the 112th Congress, a flurry of proposals have been introduced in the House and Senate to restrain EPA’s powers at least temporarily.

But on Wednesday, two key lawmakers were unveiling their plan for blocking the EPA’s greenhouse gas mandates — a proposal that could be considered in the House of Representatives soon.

The measure is being advanced by Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oka., the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works panel.

Foes of the mandates have seized on President Barack Obama’s recent executive order laying out a plan to review and streamline federal regulations.

But Jackson said the EPA won’t be cowed and the administration won’t get rid of policies that boost health and welfare.

“We will not back away from creating and enforcing those regulations that have resulted in 92 percent of Americans having clean water,” Jackson said.