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Murkowski Warns Against Expanding Federal Frack Studies

The administration's multi-agency approach to hydraulic fracturing (fracking) studies and the appearance of mission-creep is causing confusion within the oil and natural gas industry, according to some critics on Capitol Hill.

Two years ago Congress told the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to conduct a study of fracking and its impact on drinking water quality. But EPA appears to be overstepping the boundaries of the 2010 statue, according to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), citing administration plans to also investigate fracking's impact on air quality and to collect data on the environmental justice impacts of fracking on disadvantaged communities.

"I guess I'm a little concerned about the scope of the study that we're seeing coming out...it seems to me that the language in the legislation was pretty clear in terms of assessing the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and contaminated water, and that there has been a very stepped up increase in extension of the scope," Murkowski said during a Senate Committee on Appropriations subcommittee hearing Wednesday.

But EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said the scope of the congressionally-directed study has not been expanded by EPA.

"There is, on the part of the administration -- from the President, from the White House -- a desire to do additional science around hydraulic fracturing...because the public's trust in that technology, we believe, is also based on the belief that we are looking to bring the very best science to bear to ensure that it remains safe," Jackson said. "I have said over and over again that natural gas, hydraulic fracturing, fracturing for oil, is an incredibly important part of our energy mix, but we need to assure the American public that we're stepping up to the challenge and getting the best science so that it remains as safe as it possibly can be.

"So it's not an expansion of the scope of the study. It's a proposal in the President's budget to add funding to do studies in additional areas that would be done with the Department of Interior and the Department of Energy."

Proposing to study additional impacts of fracking presumes that there are such impacts, Murkowski said. "I guess I look at it and say it would be more appropriate to look at these impacts only if you do discover that there is a link between fracking and contaminated water first. I don't disagree with you that we want to be using best science, not only through the study that EPA is doing but what the other agencies are doing as well, but it would appear to me that there is an added expansion here in terms of the scope."

Jackson was testifying before the Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies in support of EPA's 2013 budget request of $8.344 billion, which includes $14 million in total to work collaboratively with the United States Geological Survey, the Department of Energy and other partners to assess questions regarding fracking.

In his fiscal 2013 budget released earlier this year, President Obama announced a $45 million interagency effort by Interior, DOE and the EPA to assess the impact of fracking of shale (see Daily GPI, Feb. 14). The request drew immediate attacks from Republicans, who questioned why the federal government needed more money to study fracking.

The EPA has been conducting an independent study of the impact of fracturing on water quality and public health for the past two years (see Daily GPI, March 18, 2010). Producers say they are confident that the study -- if conducted objectively -- will show fracking to be safe. The agency is expected to release an interim report this year.

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