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EPA Vows to Work with States to Oversee Fracking

An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official told a Senate panel earlier this week that the agency is committed to cooperating with states to oversee the practice of hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

"We remain committed to working with state officials, who are on the front lines of permitting and regulating natural gas production activities," said Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe during a hearing of a Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee.

"EPA has an important role to play in ensuring environmental protection and in working with federal and state government partners to manage the benefits and risks of shale gas production.

"We must effectively address concerns about the consequences of shale gas development using the best science and technology. To this end, we are working in the following areas, among others, with all of our stakeholders, including other federal and state agencies, the oil and gas industry, and the public health community to evaluate and address the potential environmental issues related to shale gas."

Perciasepe expressed support for natural gas, saying that it "holds promise for an increased role in our energy future."

While preferring to work with the states, which have "front-line responsibility for oversight of oil and gas drilling operations," he said the EPA has authority to respond to "imminent and substantial endangerment to public health or the environment under several statutes," including the Clean Air Act; the Clean Water Act (CWA); the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act; the Toxic Substances Control Act; the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act; and the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 excluded fracking in oil and natural gas development from regulation under the SDWA. However, that exemption does not include fracking activities where diesel fuel is used.

The EPA has "tools for enforcement and investigation to ensure compliance" with federal regulations and to offer support and technical assistance to state programs, which have primary oversight of oil and gas drilling operations, Perciasepe said.

"In April 2010 EPA announced an enforcement initiative for energy extraction sector for fiscal years 2011 through 2013. The initiative has twin goals: to take appropriate enforcement action where adverse impacts on air and water from energy extraction activities threaten human health; and to incorporate broad, company-wide injunctive relief in gas-related enforcement actions as a means of reducing human health and environmental impacts of the industry," he told the Senate subcommittee.

Perciasepe said the agency is mulling several initiatives related to unconventional gas development. As part of its effluent guidelines planning process under the CWA, the EPA is considering whether to initiate a rulemaking to revise the regulations to address coalbed methane extraction flowback waters. Moreover, the agency is considering how best to address shale gas extraction wastewater discharges to publicly owned treatment works under the CWA, he said. And he said the agency is working to ensure that the SDWA "programmatic requirements" related to hydraulic fracturing when using diesel fuels are implemented appropriately.

In March 2010 the EPA began a study of the potential risks of fracking on water quality and public health. Environmentalists and some lawmakers contend that the chemicals used in fracking are a health risk, but producers say they are confident that the study -- if conducted objectively -- will show fracking to be safe (see Daily GPI, March 19, 2010).

As part of this effort, the EPA pressed nine oil and gas service firms to disclose the chemical fluids that they use during the fracking process to develop shale gas (see Daily GPI, Nov. 10, 2010).

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