The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) expects to release in a month or two the details of how it will carry out its study of the risks of hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracking) to water quality and public heath, said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. She signaled that federal regulation of the well stimulation technique may not be needed.

Until the study is completed, the agency has taken a neutral stance on whether hydrofracking -- which is used in the development of shale natural gas -- should be regulated at the federal or state level, she told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee during a hearing on contamination of drinking water.

"On hydraulic fracturing, we are about to round up [and soon release] our work plan, which has gone through peer review and public comment," Jackson said. In March 2010 the EPA announced plans to study hydrofracking (see Daily GPI, March 19, 2010).

"It is not an unregulated activity. Many localities, many states regulate varying aspects of the drilling process. One thing I think EPA can do to add to the body of knowledge is to determine whether there are any holes in that regulatory structure. It's not necessarily federal regulation will be needed," Jackson told the Senate panel.

"I think what would give the American people comfort with all that they're seeking about this technology is the knowledge that regulators are not backing away from looking at it, but rather are doing everything we can to understand and to ensure that we have good science."

Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) asked Jackson whether the EPA "would take into consideration those regulations that come from the states because of varying applications of this technology from state to state."

"Certainly...States are different. The [geology] is different. The number of people and population density is different. But there may be a need for a federal role. We simply don't know. And this study will take a while," Jackson responded.

"I know there's an effort out there to start regulating hydraulic fracturing," even though "there's not been a documented case of groundwater contamination" linked to the technique, which was first used in 1948 in Oklahoma, Inhofe said.

He asked that he be included in any further EPA investigation of hydrofracking.

In addition to the EPA study, there is legislation pending in Congress to regulate hydrofracking at the federal level under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). The oil and gas industry is the only industry exempted from federal oversight under the SDWA.

Environmental groups, public health groups and local communities argue that hydrofracking poses a risk to underground sources of drinking water. Producers claim the practice is entirely safe.

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