Gannett Washington Bureau
Rep. Bob Gibbs and other House Republicans took aim Wednesday at the Obama administration's plans to regulate hydraulic fracturing, the drilling method used to extract natural gas from shale beds in Ohio and across the country.
At a House subcommittee hearing led by Gibbs, the Lakeville Republican highlighted the economic potential of natural gas exploration in Ohio. He also said Environmental Protection Agency officials need to "think carefully" before issuing any new federal rules that would "needlessly restrict this important industry."
An official from Ohio's Oil & Gas Association was among the witnesses at the hearing, which comes as hydraulic fracturing, a relatively new technology also known as "fracking," has sparked a boom in the natural gas industry. Fracking also has come under scrutiny.
The process involves injecting water, sand and some chemicals underground to extract the gas. Industry officials say it is safe and well-regulated at the state level.
Environmentalists and others think the process has contaminated groundwater in some communities, and they want a strong federal standard to replace the current patchwork of state laws.
At Wednesday's hearing, some Democrats on the panel -- a Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee -- questioned whether fracking was safe and suggested further study would help determine what, if any, new national rules might be needed to protect the public.
In October, EPA officials announced they would begin a regulatory process to establish "pretreatment standards" for wastewater produced by fracking. The rules won't come out until 2014, and the EPA has just launched a study to examine the impact of fracking on water quality.
"We should want to know all that we can about the potential impact of hydrofracking," particularly any negative effects on public health or the environment, said Rep. Timothy Bishop, a Democrat from New York. If the practice is safe and vigorously overseen at the state level, the natural gas industry should have nothing to fear from EPA's review, Bishop added.
"What we know is that shale gas extraction in some instances can generate large volumes of wastewater and that this wastewater can potentially contain high concentrations of salts, radionuclides, heavy metals and other materials that are potentially harmfully to human health and the environment," Jim Hanlon, director of the EPA's Office of wastewater Management, told the committee.
Hanlon said although the economic and energy benefits of natural gas were clear, those must be balanced with public health.
"In the coming months, EPA will carefully consider the impact of regulatory costs to the industry and to the special subsets of stakeholders such as small businesses and state and local governments," he said.
Any federal rule would apply only to wastewater that's sent from a drilling site to a wastewater treatment plant. At some sites, the water is re-injected into the ground, but that's not always possible.
When it's not, there's concern that local treatment facilities are ill-equipped to handle the chemicals and other pollutants in fracking-generated wastewater. Hanlon and others said there's widespread concern that local facilities don't know what chemicals are in fracking wastewater, let alone how to cleanse the material.
In Ohio, treatment facilities are barred from accepting any wastewater from oil or gas wells, including fracking sites, said Thomas Stewart, executive vice president of Ohio's Oil & Gas Association. All such wastewater has to be taken to one of the state's 180 disposal wells to keep it from going into the ground or nearby lakes and streams.
Stewart and others argued Wednesday that a federal pretreatment standard would be unworkable. He noted that the geology and other characteristics of each drilling site are different, requiring varying amounts of water and chemicals -- and thus producing different wastewater.
"It's not like characterizing something that comes from a factory," he said. "If you produce water out of a shale, the water that comes to the surface is going to be dramatically different than the water produced from a sandstone."
In Ohio, the specific extraction method used will be "different from Fairfield County to Ashtabula County," Stewart said. "That's why the states are best (suited) to do it."
Stewart also said that any new regulatory burdens could hamper natural gas's potential to rev up Ohio's economy. He cited an industry study that concluded that Ohio's natural gas and crude oil industry could create or support about 200,000 jobs over the next four years, stemming from exploration and drilling of the state's Utica Shale.
"Development of the Utica Shale may be the most significant positive economic event to take place in Ohio for decades," Stewart told the panel.
Gibbs and others strongly echoed that sentiment, saying federal involvement could dampen a bright spot in the otherwise stalled U.S. economy. The Ohio Republican also suggested that concerns over water contamination were overblown.
Gibbs asked three witnesses at the table, from Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Oklahoma, if there had been any documented instances of fracking contaminating the groundwater in their states. Each witness, all of whom had expressed strong pro-natural gas positions, replied no.
"That somehow these terrible chemicals are getting into the groundwater is myth," said Michael Krancer, Pennsylvania's energy secretary. "It's bogus."
He said the current tussle was about "ideology, not science," with a Democratic White House favoring a bigger federal hand on a hot environmental issue.
But Bishop, the New York Democrat, pushed back. If Pennsylvania was doing such a great job regulating fracking wastewater, shouldn't state officials want neighboring states to do so, too? "Do you not see the legitimacy of a minimum national standard that would emulate Pennsylvania?" Bishop asked. "You would have nothing to fear from a national standard."
"The question here is whether the states are capable," Krancer replied, "and the states are doing a good job."
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Below is a report from our District 18 Congressman's campaign finance records located on Project VoteSmart. His campaign was largely funded by The Gas and Oil Industry and the Mining Industry. He has accepted $174,459 since November 2010.
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