Strong state programs key to safe shale gas activity, senators told

Strong state enforcement programs are essential to ensure that drinking water supplies are protected as more natural gas is produced from tight shale formations, witnesses told a hearing of the US Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and its Water and Wildlife Subcommittee.

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, Apr. 13 -- Strong state enforcement programs are essential to ensure that drinking water supplies are protected as more natural gas is produced from tight shale formations, witnesses told a hearing of the US Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and its Water and Wildlife Subcommittee. Some lawmakers suggested that a bigger federal role might be necessary if states fall short.

“The natural gas industry is booming, but that may soon end,” warned Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), the subcommittee’s chairman who presided over the Apr. 12 hearing. He noted in his opening statement that New York and Maryland have imposed moratoriums on hydraulic fracturing; New Jersey is considering banning the technology; Pittsburgh, Pa., already has within its city limits; and tiny Mountain Lake Park, Md., adopted an ordinance prohibiting gas drilling within its jurisdiction.

“What’s going on? In the face of its extraordinary promise, why is natural gas faltering?” Cardin asked. “The answer is simple. The industry has failed to meet minimally acceptable performance levels for protecting human health and the environment. That is both an industry failure, and a failure of the regulatory agencies.”

Republicans from producing states disagreed. James N. Inhofe (Okla.), the full committee’s ranking minority member, said Pennsylvania now requires disclosure of frac fluid ingredients, and that FracFocus, the Interstate Oil & Gas Compact Commission and Ground Water Protection Council’s voluntary online registry, had 28 companies signed up and 9 already downloading information in its first 8 hr of operation the day before.

John Cornyn (Tex.) said there’s no need to tamper with an already successful federal and state environmental enforcement partnership by putting the US Environmental Protection Agency in complete charge. “That agency has been aggressive in developing regulations which potentially could put many independent producers out of business and their employees out of work,” he maintained.

Working with others
EPA Deputy Administrator Robert Perciasepe told the senators that the agency has an important role to play in ensuring environmental protection and in working with federal and state government partners to manage the benefits and risks of shale gas production. “We must effectively address concerns about the consequences of shale gas development using the best science and technology,” he said. EPA is working in several areas with all stakeholders, including other federal and state agencies, the oil and gas industry, and the public health community, to evaluate and address potential environmental issues related to shale gas development, he indicated.

When Cardin noted that an EPA regional official said that a Pennsylvania wastewater treatment plant did not always remove all the pollutants as it handled produced water and other flowback from deep gas, Perciasepe said the plant’s state permit did not cover these specific pollutants in the recovered water. EPA’s primary role where states are running programs is to provide guidance and take action when it sees imminent danger, he said.

Pennsylvania’s tight shale gas industry may have grown too quickly for state agencies to keep up, a second witness suggested. Conrad Daniel Volz, director and principal investigator at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Healthy Environments and Communities, said that when CHEC analyzed violations of the state’s oil and gas act from Jan. 1, 2007, to Sept. 30, 2010, it found Marcellus shale gas wells had 1.5-4 times more citations per well than at a conventional gas well. The state has allowed wastewater treatment plants to handle produced water and flowback for which they were not properly equipped because the industry grew so quickly and it was expedient, he added.

Robert Summers, acting secretary at the Maryland Department of the Environment, noted that gas producers have leased more than 100,000 acres in the state’s two most western counties. He said the department does not plan to allow drilling and fracing until it addresses minimum casing and construction requirements, potential for gas migration from wells, toxicity during transportation of flowback and produced water, and proper handling of naturally occurring radioactive materials.

“We’ve been watching very closely what’s going on in Pennsylvania, reviewing what’s been happening in New York, and studying how Wyoming is handling this,” Summers said. “We want to use what other states have learned in dealing with this.”

Complaints investigated
Officials from Colorado and Oklahoma agencies that regulate oil and gas production in those states testified that they and their employees take groundwater protection seriously and promptly investigate any complaints. “We get dozens of allegations a year that water wells have been contaminated. We investigate all of them,” said David Neslin, director of the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission. “In some cases, we find the wells have been contaminated from a bad cement job or other bad production practices, but not from hydraulic fracturing. In others, it has come from naturally occurring biological degradation.” COGCC has investigated thousands of groundwater contamination complaints over the years and have found no instances where fracing has been involved, he added.

“To say we take protection of our groundwater seriously would be an understatement. We continuously revise our rules to meet new conditions,” said Jeff Cloud, vice chairman of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission. He said OCC volunteered last fall to have its fracing program reviewed by the State Review of Oil & Natural Gas Environmental Regulations Inc. (STRONGER), an Oklahoma City nonprofit, multistakeholder organization that assists states in documenting their oil and gas environmental protection programs. EPA and the US Department of Energy have provided grants to STRONGER to examine other states’ programs, Cloud said.

Neslin said Colorado’s OGCC has asked STRONGER to audit the state agency’s groundwater protection programs this summer, and worked closely with the IOGCC and GWPC in launching the new online frac fluid registry. “Our current rules strike a responsible balance between environmental protection and oil and gas development,” he told the senators. “Our experience and those of other states demonstrate that regulation at the state level is working.”

Jack Ubinger, senior vice-president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, said cumulative impacts from development of gas resources in the Marcellus and other shales need to be measured closely. “The PEC believes this can not be accomplished without a substantial investment, that federal assistance and guidance will be needed, and that state and federal cooperation will be essential,” he said. “If the lessons of the past have taught us anything, it is this: Now when we’re in the formative years of a new natural gas industry, we must identify the potential impacts accurately so we do not leave a legacy of environmental degradation.”

Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said there is still more to be learned about environmental impacts from drilling for gas. “With the rapid expansion of exploration for this energy source and the potential for it to help meet a significant portion of the nation’s energy needs, we have much to gain from a full review of this issue,” she said in her opening statement. “We must move forward in a way that ensures safe and responsible drilling that is protective of our air and water.”

Contact Nick Snow at

More in General Interest