GOP House members demand answers on Obama administration’s fracking oversight

Texas Rep. Ralph Hall participates in a ceremonial swearing on Jan. 5, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Texas Rep. Ralph Hall (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

While championing the benefits of new energy extraction methods, Republican House members accused energy oversight agencies of research that misled the public on environmental and health risks.

The accusations came at a joint Energy and Environment subcommittee hearing focus on hydraulic fracturing—often called “fracking”—an extraction technique pioneered in Texas in the 90s, which taps deep ground reserves of natural gas and oil.

Rep. Ralph Hall of Rockwall slammed the Environmental Protection Agency at the Friday morning hearing. Hall said EPA reports on fracturing causing water contamination were later retracted by the agency.

“Cleary this agency’s more interested in rushing to judgment and placing information in the hands of the media than they are for looking for a sound scientific approach,” Hall said.

Hall directed his comments at Kevin Teichman, a science advisor testifying for the EPA. Hall accused the agency’s representatives of lying to Congress in the past.

The House Science Committee Chairman, Lamar Smith of San Antonio, joined Hall in slamming the EPA.

“The EPA is at the center of this debate, linking fracking to water contamination in at least three cases, only to be forced to retract their statements after further scrutiny,” Smith said.

Wyoming Rep. Cynthia Lummis went even further than her Texas colleagues. Lummis cited a report on fracking in Pavilion, Wyo., accusing the agency of inventing evidence of contamination.

“It was hugely prematurely released,” Lummis said. “It has not been peer reviewed. It was exaggerated, and it appears, in fact, EPA itself was contaminating those wells itself in in their own efforts,” Lummis said.

Rep. Randy Weber of Pearland endorsed his colleague’s critiques of the EPA.

In Texas, the EPA withdrew a Fort Worth-area case in 2012 that had alleged water contamination by hydraulic fracturing.

Hydraulic fracturing injects a mix of water and other chemicals deep into the ground to break up formations, thus releasing previously un-tappable reserves of natural gas and oil. Environmentalists and health advocates have worried that the drilling and extraction process can contaminate local water supplies, as well as certain regions having increased earthquake activity.

At issue for the GOP members was EPA’s $45 million spent on fracking research last year and $38 million requested for the year. Republican members demanded agencies release more specifics on their research plans.

EPA spokesman Teichman pushed back on some of the accusations, such as when Lummis questioned him on why the EPA had not released its research plan.

With all due respect, the plan is under development,” Teichman said. “As soon as I’m able to have it released, I will get it to you.”

Teichman said the EPA had not released a draft of its future water research because it money had not yet been appropriated. The EPA plans to publicly release a full study on fracking and drinking water in 2014.

On the issue of fracking-induced earthquakes, David Russ from the US Geological Survey said there is evidence supporting the hypothesis.

“We know now that there’s relationships between currents of these induced earthquakes and the locations of subsurface injection wells,” Russ said.  “We know that there’s been a significant uptick in the numbers of small to medium earthquakes in the central United States which we believe are associated largely with induced earthquakes,” Russ said later.

Russ said these earthquakes have a low magnitude, registering 2 to 3 on the Richter scale.

Democratic Rep. Marc Veasey of Fort Worth had a different perspective than committee Republicans. While most fracking occurs in rural areas, in Veasey’s district the extraction techniques are used in urban and suburban areas.

Veasey said he has heard from constituents in Tarrant County saying they are concerned their drinking water has been contaminated.

“Energy, and the upswing that can be converted, is going to continue to be a challenge because people are rightfully concerned,” Veasey said in a phone interview.

Veasey said congress should take citizen concern over contamination seriously, but does not foresee cooperation between the parties on environmental issues.