Environmentalists, conservationists and medical officials called on a House committee last Wednesday to close the loopholes in the federal clean air and water regulations for oil and natural gas development that they say are damaging public health, wildlife and the environment.
In testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, two residents of Texas and Colorado gave the most emotional accounts, saying they or their family members developed cancer, respiratory problems and/or neurological problems and faced major medical bills as the result of contamination of the groundwater and air caused by nearby oil and gas production activity. One said he was forced to abandon his property, while another said she became a prisoner in her own house.
Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) believes the exemptions to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act for oil and natural gas are to blame. He further cited the exemption in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct) for hydraulic fracturing (fracing), which is used widely in coalbed methane (CBM) wells in the Rocky Mountain region and elsewhere in the West. The process involves the injection of a mixture of water, chemicals and sand into a well at high pressure to crack an underground rock formation to allow natural gas to escape.
"This wish list of loopholes is terrific for the oil and gas industry, but terrible for our health and environment," he said. "As we learn today, there is one set of environmental rules for the oil and gas industry and a different set of rules for the rest of America."
David Bolin, deputy director of Alabama's oil and gas board, who represented the International Oil and Gas Compact Commission, said there was no documentation linking fracing to groundwater contamination. Even the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in June 2004 found no confirmed evidence of fracing contaminating drinking water, he noted.
Critics contend that the fracing and stormwater discharge provisions in EPAct are harmful to physical and environmental health. But "the evidence would strongly suggest otherwise," Bolin said. The two provisions "simply removed unnecessary administrative burdens on the production of oil and gas in the United States." And eliminating the EPAct sections "would not make production of oil and natural gas in the United States any safer, but could substantially increase domestic oil and gas production costs," he noted.
Medical officials and environmentalists agreed there was no study or report that categorically linked fracing and groundwater contamination, but they said this was due to the failure of producers to reveal the chemicals that are used in their fracing process. Producers contend that the information is proprietary, they noted.
"If we had access to what's being used, we would know what to look for" and test whether a chemical is harmful, said Dr. Theo Colborn, president of the Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX), a Colorado-based organization that focuses on human health and environmental problems that are caused by exposure to chemicals. There's a "broad expanse of chemicals" that are being used by producers.
"That's why I'm here to ask for full disclosure," she told the House panel. She noted that chemical testing is expensive, and the states don't have the money to do it. TEDX and others are looking to the federal government for help, Colborn said.
Dr. Daniel Teitelbaum, a medical toxicologist in Denver, called for a full-scale evaluation of the health impacts of oil and gas production. "The health consequences of oil and gas extraction must be addressed and assessed...We must close the loopholes on toxic extraction...When the bells are tolled for those injured, who will take the blame?" he asked.
"The problem we have is [that] none of us has adequate information" on the chemicals being used, Teitelbaum said. There should be community right-to-know laws about this, he recommended.
Teitelbaum noted that to date there have been documented health complaints and anecdotal evidence associated with air and water contamination, but there has been no comprehensive investigation.
Under questioning by Waxman, Benjamin Grumbles, the EPA's assistant administrator for water, said he did not know whether the agency had a complete list of the chemicals being used by producers. "We need to do additional information gathering, not only on BETX [benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene and xylenes]," but on other compounds, he noted.
Waxman also questioned whether a voluntary agreement between the EPA and Halliburton and two other companies, barring the use of diesel fuel in their fracing products, was being enforced.
Grumbles reported that the EPA currently is conducting a national study of the CBM industry. As a result, he said the agency will be in the position in the next few years to decide whether to issue new effluent guidelines.
Waxman took issue with the Interior Department's decision not to commission a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study of CBM development, including the impacts of fracing. The study is required by EPAct. Instead, Interior plans to host a meeting next spring between the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the EPA, NAS and others to explore the topic, said Robert Anderson, BLM's deputy assistant director for minerals, realty and resource protection.
"We plan to go there [the study], but [we] think it is fiscally responsible" to first ask NAS what they have done in the past on CBM development, he noted. Waxman said he sent a letter to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne last Wednesday, asking him to abandon this "ridiculous approach."
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