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House Republicans, Salazar Square Off Over Fracking

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) took center stage at a House hearing Wednesday on the fiscal year (FY) 2013 Interior Department budget, with Secretary Ken Salazar saying that he hopes that federal government research into the shale gas practice will end "a lot of the hysteria" surrounding the drilling practice.

Fending off Republican critics of Interior's plans to regulate fracking on public lands, Salazar several times said the Obama administration supported fracking and considered natural gas to be a critical part of the nation's energy portfolio.

"Natural gas and hydraulic fracking are very appropriate for the United States of America, but we need to make sure that we provide confidence...that the public health and safety and environmental are protected," he said during an oversight hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee.

Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is expected to soon issue regulations on fracking on public lands to ensure greater safety. "The fact of the matter is we are doing a tremendous amount of hydraulic fracking. Over 90%, maybe 99%, of the wells on public lands are using hydraulic fracking. And it's part of what's caused this natural gas revolution," Salazar said.

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) said he was "shocked" that the BLM plans to issue regulations while the government still was conducting a study on the health and environmental risks associated with fracking.

"Would it have made more sense...to propose more rules after you got the study on exactly what effect hydraulic fracturing was having? I would suggest to you that if you are going to spend money and effort on rules that you're going to enforce, that you really ought to wait for the study," Gohmert said.

There is a lot of "hysteria" in the states about fracking, Salazar conceded. "My point of view, based on my own study of hydraulic fracking, is that [it] can be done safely. It has been done safely hundreds of thousands of times. So what we need to do is make sure that the science supports the confidence that the American people are entitled to as we move forward in the exploration and development of this very abundant resource."

"I really appreciate that response and hopefully we can get the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] to stop the hysteria until they have some science to support it," Gohmert said.

Interior plans to issue its fracking regulations applying to public lands through a formal rulemaking process under the Administrative Procedures Act, which would allow for an open process and time for public comments. The regulations, a draft of which was released earlier this month (see Shale Daily, Feb. 6), would require companies to submit information about the operations, including a report "that discloses all additives of the proposed stimulation fluid by additive trade name and purpose," and the "complete chemical makeup of all materials used in the proposed stimulation fluid."

The rules would take into consideration proprietary trade secrets with respect to fracking fluids, according to Salazar. "It's important that we do it in the right way. There may be proprietary trade secrets that need to be addressed within the context of the rule, and we're working on that."

However "I do see the hidden nature of what is being injected into the underground as...being the Achilles Heel that can essentially kill the potential for America to develop its very abundant natural gas resource," he noted.

"It's interesting to note that over the last year many of the most responsible, largest companies [have come to] full agreement on the disclosure, well-bore integrity requirements and many of the states have moved in that direction as well," Salazar said. In formulating the regulations, he noted that the department has had "significant input" from producers, states and Native American tribes.

He indicated that the energy industry favors federal regulation of fracking as opposed to state regulation. "What I always hear from industry is that they don't like to deal with a patchwork of regulation that makes it difficult for them."

Citing the "flawed" Pavillion, WY, study, House lawmakers questioned why they they should support the separate FY 2013 funding requests of Interior's U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) ($13 million increase) and the EPA ($14 million) for research into fracking. The draft EPA report that found groundwater in Pavillion contained chemicals that are normally used in natural gas production has been attacked as bad science (see Shale Daily, Dec. 13, 2011).

"I think the jury is still out on the EPA study," Salazar conceded. He noted that the USGS and the EPA are working together to ensure that the results of the final fracking study are peer reviewed.

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