US House panel studies E&P impacts on water supplies

Members split along party lines on May 16 as a US House Natural Resources Committee subcommittee considered whether US above-ground and underwater supplies are protected adequately from potentially damaging leaks or spills from onshore oil and gas exploration and production. Democrats felt more federal regulation is needed while Republicans said many states are providing enough oversight already.

May 17th, 2019

Members split along party lines on May 16 as a US House Natural Resources Committee subcommittee considered whether US above-ground and underwater supplies are protected adequately from potentially damaging leaks or spills from onshore oil and gas exploration and production. Democrats felt more federal regulation is needed while Republicans said many states are providing enough oversight already.

“The argument from the industry that there’s not evidence that [hydraulic fracturing] has ever contaminated groundwater is a poor excuse. For Congress to not take action will lead to potentially devastating consequences if in fact we do have a well collapse. We don’t have to wait for a catastrophe before we try to reduce the likelihood of one happening,” said Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), chairman of the Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee.

“Perhaps the bigger issue is what’s happening above the surface where spills and wastewater disposal can be just as damaging if not more so,” Lowenthal said. “Produced water or brine is a very salty substance that exists underground alongside oil and gas. When spilled, brine renders the soil useless. It kills crops and vegetation. It can destroy affected land for years if it’s not properly reclaimed.”

Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.), the subcommittee’s ranking minority member, countered Lowenthal: “My colleagues across the aisle assert that oil and gas is a dire threat to our water resources. They often cite outdated science to make a point that has been disproved time and time again. They claim that we need more federal mandates to regulate hydraulic fracturing, and that without them our water resources are at risk. But we know that the states are in the best position to regulate these processes because they are on the frontlines of protecting the water in our communities.”

States with oil and gas production already have robust regulatory programs to manage responsible development within their borders, Gosar said. “Regulators partner with industry to develop and implement proactive requirements to ensure safe drilling practices and to clean up produced water spills. The positive results of their work are well documented,” he said.

Fracing exemption questioned

Witnesses presented differing assessments of the situation. Dominic DiGiulio, a senior research scientist at PSE Healthy Energy in Oakland, Calif., who retired from the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Research and Development Office in 2014 after 34 years of federal service, called for elimination of the 2005 Energy Policy Act’s exemption of hydraulic fracturing from federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) requirements.

“Due to exemption from the SDWA, definitions of protected groundwater during well stimulation vary from state to state,” he said. “While some states such as Oklahoma and Mississippi currently define protected groundwater as an underground source of drinking water (USDW) during well stimulation, definitions of protected groundwater in most states are either ambiguous or do not protect brackish groundwater resources. We recommended that states uniformly utilize criteria for a USDW to protect groundwater resources.”

Emily A. Collins, executive director and managing attorney at Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services in Pittsburgh, said, “What’s lacking in the regulation of oil and gas wells and pipeline installations across the states is site-specific geologic investigation of each activity, predictive computer modeling of environmental impacts prior to permit issuance, and ongoing basic monitoring of each well’s performance to serve its function: deliver gas and natural gas byproducts efficiently and without migration of fluids and gases to underground sources of drinking water.”

The common refrain that states are doing enough already reflects the attitude that the US comfortable by simply reacting to groundwater contamination allegations, where tort lawyers litigate property damage and personal damage claims, instead of a proactive approach where problems can be caught prior to drilling, fracturing, producing and transporting gas and its byproducts to markets, Collins said.

“Since site-specific geologic information around each well is not required to be disclosed during state permitting processes, we lack the data to make such determinations. Without a federal minimum for state regulatory agencies, the money that would be spent in the regulatory process is instead spent by property owners and industry on legal counsel, expert witnesses, and settlements,” Collins said.

“As scientific knowledge expands and new facts are uncovered, it is important that the due process employed by regulators in drafting rules keep pace with technology and operations of the industry they regulate,” said a third witness, John James Tintera, president of the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers in Austin who retired in 2012 as executive director of the Texas Water Development Board.

He said Texas has a comprehensive oil field regulatory framework, well-funded by the state legislature, with modern and updated regulations that are competently administered by accountable state regulators. “From spud to plug, state regulations are designed to protect water above and below the ground surface,” Tintera said. “Regulations are crystal clear: No person conducting activities subject to regulation by the commission may cause or allow pollution of surface or subsurface water in the state.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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