Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) reintroduced legislation on Tuesday to increase regulations on hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracking), but the new bill is entering a different world than its predecessor.
The bill is coming back before lawmakers at a time when the drilling practice is being used at record levels across the country and public debate about it is just as active.
"If hydraulic fracturing weren't as patently effective as it is, it's tough to imagine it'd be as strangely controversial as it has become," Lee Fuller, executive director of Energy in Depth, said about the return of the FRAC Act. He called hydrofracking "one of the most critical" and "among the most stringently regulated" in the drilling process.
Casey said the bill is necessary because hydrofracking can occur near drinking water wells and some of the chemicals used in the process are known carcinogens.
The Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act, also known as the FRAC act, includes two provisions, one that would repeal an exemption for hydrofracking in the Safe Water Drinking Act (SWDA) and another that would require companies to disclose the chemicals they use during the hydrofracking process.
Existing SWDA regulations designed to keep underground injection from harming drinking water supplies exclude "the underground injection of fluids or propping agents (other than diesel fuels) pursuant to hydraulic fracturing operations related to oil, gas, or geothermal production activities" in the definition of "underground injection."
That exemption is a sticking point among critics of hydrofracking, who believe it exempts hydrofracking from all SWDA regulations. Those critics have dubbed it "the Halliburton loophole" because it came about during the 2005 Energy Policy Act promoted by former Vice President and former Halliburton executive Dick Cheney.
However, industry groups view the exemption much more narrowly, saying the bill didn't exempt hydrofracking from the law because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) never regulated hydraulic fracturing under the SWDA. Those groups cite cases where companies have been sanctioned under other provisions in federal law.
In addition to ending the exemption, the FRAC Act would also require companies to give state agencies a list of the chemical additives - but not the "proprietary chemical formulas" - used in the hydrofracking process. Each state would then be required to make that information available online to the public. The bill would also require companies to disclose proprietary information about chemical additives if a state or an "appropriate treating physician or nurse" decided that it needed to know the make up and mixture of the additives in order to respond to a medical emergency.
As of Wednesday, the bill had seven co-sponsors and a companion bill in the House.
Casey first introduced the FRAC Act in June 2009, but the bill failed to move out of committee. In the 20 months since, though, public debate about hydrofracking took off.
The release of the documentary Gasland in early 2010 increased public concern about the process. Josh Fox, the director behind the film, and actor Mark Ruffalo recently joined U.S. Representatives in a call to re-introduce the FRAC Act (see Shale Daily, Feb. 18).
Last summer, hundreds testified for and against hydrofracking at EPA hearings around the country (see Daily GPI, Sept. 14, 2010). Earlier this year, hundreds more testified on the process at Delaware River Basin Commission hearings (see Shale Daily, Feb. 24).
But during that same time, industry began responding to the issue.
Range Resources began voluntarily disclosing the chemicals it used for hydrofracking in the Marcellus Shale (see Daily GPI, July 15, 2010). Service companies and industry groups called for more companies to follow suit (see Shale Daily, Dec. 16, 2010).
The industry wants to continue handling disclosure itself.
America's Natural Gas Alliance supports voluntary disclosure on a well-by-well basis and pointed to efforts by the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission to create an online registry. "We do not support preempting their important effort with new federal regulations," Daniel Whitten, vice president of strategic communications for the industry group, said about the reintroduction of the FRAC Act.
Casey also reintroduced two other natural gas related bills that stalled in previous sessions. The Marcellus Shale On-the-Job Training Act would train Pennsylvanians for jobs that might otherwise go to out-of-state workers, while the Faster Action Safety Team Emergency Response Act, or FASTER, aims to improve emergency response at well sites.