Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials got an earful Thursday night in Fort Worth, TX, at the first of four hearings to determine the scope of a study on the impact of hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracing) processes on groundwater.

The study, which is to take at least two years, also is to examine other issues involved in hydrofracing (see Daily GPI, March 19). EPA is holding hearings at four locations around the country selected to represent a "full range of regional variability of hydraulic fracturing across the nation."

Fort Worth is the epicenter for Barnett Shale operations, which now spread across 20 counties in North Texas.

For both sides the completed study -- and the results each side expects to receive -- won't come nearly soon enough.

"Today, almost every well in Texas has some sort of fracturing procedure before the well is completed," noted the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers. Around three-fourths of TAEP's 3,349 members are involved in oil and gas exploration and production, and hydrofracing has long been done safely, it said.

America's Natural Gas Alliance, which represents 34 independent gas exploration and production companies, told the EPA panel that it wanted to be a "constructive participant in the progress of the study going forward."

In defending hydrofracing operations, the ANGA said, "We are confident that a scientifically sound and data-driven examination will provide policymakers and the public with even greater reassurance of the safety of the longstanding practice."

Other industry groups also were represented, all defending the safety record of gas drilling in general and the lack of proven cases of water contamination.

Angie Burckhalter, who spoke on behalf of the Independent Petroleum Association of America and the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, told EPA officials that hydrofracing was "a safe, proven technology that has been used over one million times for 60 years." Burckhalter's comments drew what one insider told NGI was "an enthusiastic response, but so did comments from those who oppose fracing...It was a pretty loud room."

Fracing critic Sharon Wilson of the Texas Oil and Gas Accountability Project told EPA, "We need you here. We need you on the ground. We need you now...I'm sending out an SOS..."

Members of the Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC) also offered their two cents on fracturing, which they said already was adequately regulated by the state.

RRC Chairman Victor Carrillo noted that hydrofracing was basically "invented" in Texas and fine-tuned in the granddaddy of shale plays, the Barnett, which underlies a huge swath of the heavily populated Fort Worth region. Without hydrofracing, said Carrillo, gas recovery from shale would be "impossible."

Carrillo noted that there have been no "documented cases" of groundwater contamination in Texas caused by hydrofracing. The RRC is responsible for permitting gas and oil wells and is responsible for reviewing the scientific data.

Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones, who attended the hearing, noted that the RRC had provided the regulatory framework "for virtually all of the oil and gas production activity in Texas, including over 50 years of hydraulic fracturing." The RRC "does not allow the permitting of a well where hydraulic fracturing will be used without certification from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) that identifies the depth that groundwater must be protected by cement and steel," Jones said.

She explained the methods used by state officials and the evaluations by the TCEQ, which are used by the RRC "before we consider issuing a permit to drill...

"Based on the facts, one can be confident that the geology in Texas, combined with safeguards that we require in the drilling of a well, simply do not support the notion that water used in hydraulic fracturing will migrate to a water table," Jones stated. "With many thousands of fracs taking place in Texas, commission records do not indicate a single documented water contamination case associated with hydraulic fracturing in our state."

Jones said the EPA study, "like other studies in the past, will show the positive benefits of this homegrown technology..." TCEQ already is butting heads with EPA officials over air quality rules. Most recently in a long-running dispute the EPA disapproved the flexible permit program that the state agency had submitted for inclusion in its clean air implementation plan (see Daily GPI, July 2).

A staunch hydrofracing critic, DISH, TX, Mayor Calvin Tillman, had show-and-tell items for the EPA panel. He brought a container of opaque water that he said came from the home of a resident who lives within Barnett operations. The resident fears his water well has been contaminated by gas operators, Tillman said.

As EPA considers whether to more strictly regulate gas operators' operations, it should not consider whether it would "negatively affect" Chesapeake Energy Corp. or Devon Energy Corp., two of the largest Barnett operators, said Tillman. The emphasis, he said, should be on the negative effects on the region's drinking water supplies.

Energy In Depth spokesman Chris Tucker said environmental groups would like the hydrofracing issues to drag on for years. But he said his industry group isn't worried about the eventual outcome of EPA's findings. The EPA scientists, he said, "recognized that the mandate from Congress is to study the effects on groundwater. They understood that mandate and took it to heart. Any time this conversation comes up, when it comes down to science, we win."

Following the hearing, FBR Capital Markets analyst Benjamin Salisbury said Friday in a note that the EPA "appears inclined to take a broad view of its hydraulic fracturing study and may be likely to investigate related activities, such as surface handing of fluids and management of produced water. "In our view, the probability of restrictive federal regulation passing Congress in the near term remains low. However, we note that a comprehensive study does invite scrutiny and could foster long-term uncertainty."

Next up for the EPA panel is a hearing on Tuesday in Denver, followed by one July 22 in Canonsburg, PA outside Pittsburgh. The final hearing is scheduled for Aug. 12 in Binghamton, NY.

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