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Director Arrested Ahead of House Fracking Hearing

A contentious House committee hearing over an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report on possible natural gas contamination of well water started off with the ejection from the hearing room of director Josh Fox of the controversial film, Gasland.

Fox, who lacked press credentials for the session of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, was arrested for unlawful entry by Capitol Hill police after he refused to dismantle his film equipment and leave.

A film crew for ABC News, also was ejected from the hearing for lack of credentials. The subcommittee hearing was called to investigate the EPA's study of alleged well water contamination by Encana Corp. hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in Pavillion, WY (see Shale Daily, Jan. 17).

Subcommittee Chairman Andy Harris (R-MD), backed by Republicans on the committee, refused to waive the rules on credentials, noting that the hearing already was being webcast, and committee Democrats failed to win votes to overturn the chairman's ruling.

The anti-fracking film Gasland has been blamed by the energy industry for much of the misinformation floating around about the practice of fracking (see Shale Daily,Feb. 16, 2011).

Kathleen Sgamma, testifying at the hearing for the Western Energy Alliance, pointed out that "once misinformation gets out in the public, it takes on a life of its own and is almost impossible to correct."

The hearing was called to examine EPA's practices in preparing a draft report on the alleged Pavillion contamination, which was released last December and is out for public comment until March 12 (see Shale Daily, Dec. 9, 2011). Encana and industry interests have blasted the report for inaccuracies and faulty science, while others -- such as some lawmakers in Maryland who seek to stall Marcellus Shale development -- have cited it as a red flag on fracking.

Harris, who is a medical doctor, chided President Obama for "a remarkable display of arrogance and disregard for plain facts," citing the president's recent call for expanded reliance on natural gas while his administration relies on "scientific innuendo" and "regulatory straitjacketing" to hamstring the energy industry.

Ranking committee member Brad Miller (D-NC) said the public's concern about fracking is reasonable and suggested that the roster of hearing witnesses was "just a big wink and nod to the industry that the majority is on their side no matter what."

Witness Sgamma was joined by EPA Region 8 Administrator James Martin; Tom Doll, oil and gas supervisor for the Wyoming Oil & Gas Conservation Commission; and the University of Pittsburgh's Bernard Goldstein, a professor in the Graduate School of Public Health. Martin was grilled; Doll spoke for Wyoming and its governor; Sgamma blasted EPA, and Goldstein's testimony fell mostly down the middle.

Like Sgamma, Goldstein seized upon confusion among the public at large about fracking. On the one hand, fracking has been described as a long-standing process in oil and gas development, used for years with little consequence, he said. On the other, fracking is pitched as a new technology that has unlocked vast natural gas and now oil resources. "It can't be both," he said.

In the early days of fracking the industry was using far less water at lower pressures in shallower wells without horizontal laterals, Goldstein said. "I think that the idea that 'this has been around for so long' and 'don't worry about it' is inappropriate..." he said, suggesting that fracking today is like a "two-ton bomb" compared with the "hand grenade" of earlier days. "It is a wonderful new technology, but we have to be careful with it."

Goldstein conceded that America's vast gas reserves would end up being produced. Because they're not going anywhere, why the rush, he asked, noting that he agreed with a recent call by a group of physicians for a pause in fracking while its effects are studied further (see Shale Daily, Jan. 10).

Harris grilled Martin on EPA's findings of benzene in monitoring wells it drilled to investigate the allegations of water contamination in Pavillion. Martin conceded that benzene was the only chemical found in concentrations exceeding drinking water standards. When pressed by Harris on whether the benzene was found in one or both of the two monitoring wells, Martin said he didn't know. Harris, citing the EPA's draft report, asserted that benzene was found in only one well in concentrations exceeding those considered safe for drinking water.

When Miller had his turn at bat with Martin, first on his agenda was to establish that benzene is a "known carcinogen." Miller then dismissed Sgamma's credibility, citing her background in information technology and not geology. She countered that her groups' members have the requisite expertise to evaluate fracking's safety.

Doll testified that EPA failed to consider possible sources of water contamination in Pavillion other than fracking. He said EPA's report contains "poor quality data and science" and the state of Wyoming's experts don't support its findings. The dissemination of the draft report in the media has resulted in "a worldwide damnation of hydraulic fracturing," Doll said.

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