Onshore drilling threatens environment, House panel told

Onshore oil and gas activity in the Rocky Mountains is threatening public health and the environment in producing areas, witnesses told a US House committee on Oct. 31.

Nick Snow
Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, Nov. 1 -- Onshore oil and gas activity in the Rocky Mountains is threatening public health and the environment in producing areas, witnesses told a US House committee on Oct. 31.

State and federal government officials countered that current regulations are being enforced, and they balance the need to develop more domestic energy with adequate environmental protection.

Their observations came as the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee examined oil and gas exemptions to federal environmental safeguards which chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) characterized as loopholes.

"As children, we all learned about basic fairness. We know that it's not fair when someone gets to play be different rules than the rest of us. But as we will learn today, there is one set of environmental rules for the oil and gas industry and a different set of rules for the rest of America," he said in his opening statement.

Specifically, said Waxman, the Safe Drinking Water Act makes it illegal to inject toxic chemicals into underground aquifers and the Clean Water Act requires companies and individual homeowners to control erosion while a property is under construction. Neither provision applies to oil and gas producers, he said.

"Even the Clean Air Act dropped a key pollutant emitted by oil and gas operations from the list of regulated, hazardous air pollutants, though it did give [the US Environmental Protection Agency] authority to add the chemical to the list," Waxman said.

Limited information
Several witnesses complained that producers and oilfield service companies are not required to provide enough information about hydraulic fracturing fluids which could contain hazardous chemicals. Meanwhile, energy exploration and development in the Rockies has grown dramatically, they said. "The oil and gas industry has become the biggest land developer in the Intermountain West," observed Kendrick Neubecker, vice-president of Trout Unlimited's Colorado state council.

Daniel Thau Teitelbaum, a medical toxicologist in Denver, added, "Despite the extraction activity under way, the toxic impact on the human and animal populations of the resource areas is underevaluated. There is no public health oversight. There is no database of those exposed at work or residents. No surveillance of the health impact of the activities on worker families and other resident populations near the extraction and processing sites is under way or planned," he said.

Theo Colburn, president of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX) in Paonia, Colo., said, "It is impossible to provide quantitative information about what is being used at any stage of developing natural gas because much of this information is proprietary. For example, in what quantities and mixtures are the products being used? How much water or other fluids are used to attain the million gallons needed to fracture a well?" said

Asked by committee member Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) if water pollution is the single biggest problem, Colburn replied, "Air emissions are contributing too, particularly volatile organic compounds released during well operations."

Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, "Decades of deal-making by the industry, Congress, and regulatory offices have resulted in exemptions for the oil and gas industry" from protections under the CWA; SWDA; the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA, more commonly known as the Superfund law); and the Community Right-to-Know Act.

"Despite readily available and often economical technological solutions capable of controlling hazardous pollution such as air emission controls and nontoxic or less toxic chemical alternatives, the industry as a whole has failed to take reasonable steps needed to protect families, communities, and the environment," Mall charged.

Two other witnesses described significant health problems they or their family members endured soon after oil and gas activity began near where they lived.

No conclusive impacts
But state and federal regulators said available evidence shows no conclusive health or environmental impacts from hydraulic fracturing or storm water runoff during well construction, both of which are covered by provisions in the 2005 Energy Policy Act.

"Make no mistake: We in the US are the best-regulated oil and natural gas regime in the world," said David E. Bolin, deputy director of Alabama's state oil and gas board, who testified on behalf of the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission. "No other country operates under stricter environmental, health, and safety regulatory oversight. Elimination of Sections 327 and 382 of EPACT would not make production of oil and gas in the US one iota safer but could substantially increase domestic oil and gas production costs and thereby decrease domestic supply."

Asked by committee member Chris Cannon (R-Utah) if coalbed methane (CBM) operations, which are shallow relative to other oil and gas activities, are likelier to jeopardize drinking water supplies, Bolin replied, "Typically, drinking water wells are 50-100 ft deep. We work to make sure hydraulic fracturing fluids don't make their way to shallower levels."

Benjamin H. Grumbles, assistant administrator for water at EPA, said that the agency uses every tool available to do its job. EPA also recognizes that environmental protection strategies must evolve as characteristics of US industries and their operations change, and it works with regulated entities to improve performance by addressing specific industries' unique issues and challenges, he said.

He noted that EPA and the nation's three biggest oilfield service companies (BJ Services, Halliburton, and Schlumberger) voluntarily agreed to quit using diesel fuel in their fracturing fluids in 2004 after a study by EPA, the US Department of Energy, US Geological Survey, and several states found that diesel posed the only significant health risk in CBM fracking operations. EPACT specifically exempted hydraulic fracking of CBM from SDWA regulation as long as diesel fuel was not used, Grumbles added.

He said EPA has information about fracking fluid ingredients but was not certain if it's complete. "Based on information from this hearing, we're going to coordinate with state drinking water councils, the IOGCC, and others to get more information about components besides BTEX [benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene] which could pose health problems in drinking water," Grumbles said.

Categorical exclusions
Robert Anderson, deputy assistant director for minerals, royalty, and resource protection at the US Bureau of Land Management, said categorical exclusions authorized under EPACT have let the Department of the Interior agency's employees spend more time inspecting operations and processing drilling permit applications.

But Waxman complained that DOI has not complied with an EPACT provision requiring a study of CBM production impacts on surface and ground water in certain western states. "The statutorily mandated study is now 14 months late and has not yet been started. Moreover, documents the Oversight Committee has obtained from the BLM indicate that . . . BLM is planning to ask the National Academy [of Sciences] to conduct a public meeting, not a study as required by law," he said in an Oct. 31 letter to US Interior Secretary Dirk A. Kempthorne.

When the committee chairman asked Anderson about it, the BLM official said the meeting next spring with EPA and NAS will attempt to determine if earlier studies produced information that can be used. "There were 11 other sections of EPACT that directed us to do studies. None was funded by Congress," he pointed out.

"Congress passed a law requiring this study. If you didn't have funds, why didn't you ask us for them?" Waxman said.

Some Republicans on the committee questioned the motives behind this hearing and one scheduled next week on coal-fired power plants. "Although the background materials describe environmental impacts as 'potential,' it appears pretty clearly that those on the other side already have their minds made up," said ranking minority member Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) in his opening statement.

Rep. Darrell E. Issa (R-Calif.) said that while EPACT made minor changes in federal environmental laws, "for the most part, we are talking about practices that have been around and codified for decades. What the oil and gas industry does not need is a congressional signal that the rules will be changed retroactively."

Davis suggested that a sensible energy policy should focus on both securing additional sources of domestically produced energy and reducing carbon emissions, while ensuring that environmental protection regulations are sensible, complete, and enforceable.

"What we can't do now is take potential sources off the table. I worry that this is the subtext of this hearing. I worry again about poking small holes in the bottom of the boat," he said.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com

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