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House Panel Wants EPA Review of Hydrofracing

The House Appropriations Committee last Thursday voted out a $32.3 billion spending bill that calls on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to review the risks that hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracing) pose to the nation's drinking water.

The spending bill includes funding for the Department of Interior, EPA and related agencies for fiscal year 2010. It's expected to be taken up on the House floor as early as this week. In addition to the hydrofracing provision, the bill imposes a new fee ($2,000 to $6,000 per facility per year) for inspections of offshore oil and gas facilities, providing a total of $10 million to partially offset the cost of the inspection program. And it would defer $50 million annually for research related to oil and gas production in the ultra-deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), who sponsored the measure on the EPA review, advocates closing the loophole that exempts hydrofracing from the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 (SDWA), which seeks to protect the public water supply from toxic contamination. The oil and gas industry is the only industry exempted from complying with the SDWA.

"We're now one important step closer toward securing a new, unbiased EPA study on the risks that hydraulic fracturing pose to our nation's drinking water," Hinchey said.

"As we enter a period in time when we may very well see a dramatic increase in natural gas drilling, it's important that we have policies in place that will safeguard our drinking water supplies so that we don't destroy one natural resource while pursuing another. Natural gas drilling should be allowed, but it must be done in a way that is environmentally sound," he said. Despite Hinchey's claim, domestic drilling is not poised for an upturn, but rather is at one of it's lowest levels.

Producers contend that hydrofracing does not harm public drinking water and that stripping them of this exemption would stunt natural gas production, particularly from shale gas plays.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005, which Hinchey voted against, clarified that hydrofracing was not intended to be regulated under the SDWA. Hydrofracing involves the injection of fluids into wells at extremely high pressures to crack open underground formations and stimulate the flow of oil and gas. More than 90% of oil and gas wells in the United States employ hydraulic fracturing, according to Hinchey.

Hinchey proposed the measure one month after he asked EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson during an appropriations subcommittee hearing about the need to study hydrofracing. She indicated at the time that she believed the EPA should review the risks posed to drinking water in light of various cases across the country that raised questions about the safety of the production process (see NGI, May 25).

A 2004 EPA study, which Hinchey claims was biased in favor of the oil and gas industry, concluded that hydrofracing did not pose a risk to public drinking water. However, he noted that more than 1,000 reported contamination incidents in New Mexico, Alabama, Ohio, Texas, Pennsylvania and Colorado have cast significant doubt on the report's findings.

Hinchey joined two other House Democrats earlier this month in introducing a bill that would require oil and natural gas producers to disclose to the EPA the chemicals they use in their hydrofracing processes. Disclosure currently is required at the state level, but not all states enforce this, said a Capitol Hill aide (see NGI, June 15).

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