DeGette, Polis try to drill down better fracking oversight

By David O. Williams
Real AspenMarch 15, 2011
U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette and Jared Polis, both Colorado Democrats, have once again introduced the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act (FRAC Act) to regain federal regulatory authority over the natural gas drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

DeGette and Polis unsuccessfully ran the legislation last session, seeking to close the so-called “Halliburton Loophole” named for the oil and gas services company previously headed up by former Vice President Dick Cheney. It was during the Bush-Cheney administration in 2005 that Congress granted hydraulic fracturing an exemption from federal regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

A Bush administration U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official in charge of water quality issues recently told the ProPublica website that an EPA study used to justify the Safe Drinking Water Act exemption should not have been used and that the current policy is too lenient in regulating fracking operations.

This is DeGette’s third crack at removing the exemption and requiring oil and gas companies to reveal exactly what chemicals they’re injecting under extremely high pressure, along with mostly water and sand, deep into natural gas wells to fracture tight geological formations and free up more gas.

DeGette, Polis and Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., — another sponsor of the FRAC Act — recently unveiled a congressional investigation that found oil and gas companies have been using diesel fuel in the fracking process, which many fear is contaminating groundwater supplies. A New York Times investigation of fracking found wastewater treatment facilities are being overwhelmed with sometimes radioactive fracking fluids.

“As we recognize the need for energy independence and alternative sources to power our nation, natural gas is an important economic driver and a critical bridge fuel,” DeGette said in a release.

“However, it is incumbent upon us to ensure the process for extracting natural gas from our land is done safely and responsibly. The FRAC Act takes necessary but reasonable steps to ensure our nation’s drinking water is protected, and that as fracking operations continue to expand, communities can be assured that the economic benefits of natural gas are not coming at the expense of the health of their families.”

Diana DeGette

State regulators who oversee oil and gas drilling in Colorado have said the FRAC Act is unnecessary and could create another layer of regulation that could actually spread the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission staff too thin.

Oil and gas industry officials have consistently pointed to a lack of evidence that fracking contaminates groundwater or poses a public health threat, but opponents of the practice say that’s because chemical ingredients are not being revealed so it’s difficult for regulators to know what to test for.

“There is a growing discrepancy between the natural gas industry’s claim that nothing ever goes wrong and the drumbeat of investigations and personal tragedies which demonstrate a very different reality,” Polis said in a release.

“The FRAC Act is a simple, common-sense way to answer the serious concerns that accompany the rapid growth of drilling across the country. Our bill restores a basic, national safety-net that will ensure transparency within the industry and safeguard our communities. If there is truly nothing to worry about, then this bill will lay the public’s concern to rest through science and sunlight.”

The House bill was introduced along with the Senate version, which is sponsored by Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

According to today’s joint release by DeGette, Hinchey and Polis, the FRAC Act would specifically:

• Require disclosure of the chemical constituents used in the fracturing process, but not the proprietary chemical formula.
• The proprietary chemical formulas are protected under our bill – much like the way Coca-Cola must reveal the ingredients of Coke, but not their secret formula; oil and gas companies would have to reveal the chemicals but not the specific formula.
• Disclosure would be to the state, or to EPA, but only if EPA has primary enforcement responsibility in the state. The disclosures would then be made available to the public online.
• This bill does include an emergency provision that requires these proprietary chemical formulas to be disclosed to a treating physician, the State, or EPA in emergency situations where the information is needed to provide medical treatment.
• Repeal a provision added to the Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempting the industry from complying with the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), one of our landmark environmental and public health protection statutes.
• Most states have primacy over these types of wells, and the intent of this Act is to allow states to ensure that our drinking water is safe. EPA would set the standard, but a state would be able to incorporate hydraulic fracturing into the existing permitting process for each well, and so this would not require any new permitting process.


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