Lawmakers call for investigation of hydraulic fracturing

By OGJ editors

HOUSTON, Oct. 18 -- Five members of Congress have written the US Environmental Protection Agency seeking investigation of the regulation of hydraulic fracturing, a request that an industry spokesman said was politically motivated.

"This appears to be pure politics," said Bill Whitsitt, president of the Domestic Petroleum Council, Washington, DC. "This is a nonissue about a nonproblem."

Halliburton Co. is one of three US companies that dominate the hydraulic fracturing market. US Vice-Pres. Dick Cheney spent 5 years as chief executive and chairman of Halliburton.

In separate requests, four Democrats and one independent asked EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt to investigate the practice.

Reps. Mark Udall and Diana DeGette, both Democrats from Colorado, also called for congressional hearings. Sens. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) asked Leavitt to explain why the EPA was not monitoring fracturing under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) questioned whether "political considerations improperly influenced" an EPA study completed in June that found fracturing in coalbed methane fields did not threaten drinking water. Waxman and DeGette are on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Hydraulic fracturing involves pumping liquids underground at high pressure; some of the fluids remain in the subsurface. The lawmakers cited concerns that these liquids contain hazardous chemicals and could contaminate groundwater.

Previous investigations by the EPA and others have found no environmental damage associated with hydraulic fracturing, Whitsitt said.

Currently, state governments regulate the practice through permitting programs. States also have underground injection control (UIC) programs to manage liquid wastes and the reinjection of produced waters.

The National Petroleum Council estimates that 60-80% of all gas wells drilled in the next decade will require fracturing. The American Society of Petroleum Geologists opposes strict federal environmental regulation of fracturing.

Hydraulic fracturing has been an issue for years stemming from litigation that started in the mid-1990s when the Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation (LEAF) petitioned the EPA to require Alabama to regulate hydraulic fracturing under the UIC program. EPA rejected LEAF, saying Congress never intended for UIC to cover hydraulic fracturing.

Fearing continued litigation, industry associations pushed for a legislative resolution of the issue. The House adopted a provision under comprehensive energy legislation to prevent hydraulic fracturing from being regulated under the EPA UIC program. The legislation has not been passed.

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