This week the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee held a subcommittee hearing on the safeness of hydraulic fracturing in the United States. Fracking, as it has become commonly known, is an increasingly prevalent process for producing natural gas. But the practice has drawn lots of attention of late — most of it negative.
In February, the New York Times’ Ian Urbina began an investigative series about fracking that highlighted the possibility of radioactivity from fracking in Pennsylvania in streams and waterways. Around the same time, "Gasland," a documentary highlighting concerns about fracking, was nominated for an Academy Award. Since then, more reports have surfaced about fracking, highlighting concerns about everything ranging from water contamination to the possibility that the process is causing earthquakes in Arkansas. Here’s what I took away from the Senate hearing.
1. A new focus on how clean natural gas really is
Timing is everything, right? Well, the Senate hearing came less than 24 hours after a Cornell University study was released, explaining how methane gas that escapes during natural gas and fracking production may make natural gas as dirty as coal in terms of carbon emissions. During the first part of the hearing, Robert Perciasepe, deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), referenced the methane issue when he said, “We will need to take a serious look at methane emissions from fracking.”
2. Pennsylvania’s wastewater system looks bad
How Pennsylvania deals with its wastewater from fracking became a major area of focus during the hearing. Urbina’s NY Times investigation revealed that wastewater, which often contains some level of radioactivity, is often treated by municipal water treatment plants in Pennsylvania. The problem is that these plants aren’t designed to deal with radioactivity, a detail that has raised eyebrows in the Senate. Jack Ubinger of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council told the congressional committee, “In Pennsylvania, there is very little treatment done except to remove some of the barium. There are many contaminates that aren’t treated at all.” Then Ubinger was asked, “Why doesn’t Pennsylvania treat this?” He replied, “I don’t know, sir.”
Jeff Cloud, who heads Oklahoma’s oil and gas regulatory agency, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, didn’t help Pennsylvania’s cause when he added, “I believe that the stagnates from the back flow of fracking should be kept out of water supplies and never put into treatment plants.” In Oklahoma and many other states, wastewater from fracking is generally stored in containment wells.
3. States’ rights vs. federal oversight is a new theme
The congressional hearing revealed some resistance to federal standards from many Republicans on the committee. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking Republican on the committee, warned those in attendance that federal oversight could be “death by a thousand cuts” for the natural gas industry. But Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) told those testifying before the committee, “We need the federal government to take a more active role in fracking. We believe states should have responsibilities, but a federal regulatory floor will offer basic protections.” Expect this federal vs. local debate to become more common as the fracking debate goes on.
4. Lautenberg not convinced that fracking is safe.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) is serious about following the trajectory of the natural gas industry. “Few things in life are more important then clean water and few responsibilities of the federal government are more important than protecting clean water. We hear of contamination, but the EPA is powerless because of the Republican Congress and Dick Cheney’s loophole,” said Lautenberg.
The so-called “Halliburton Loophole” that Lautenberg is referring to is part of the Energy Act of 2005, which exempts companies from disclosing specifics about the toxic chemicals they use to pump into the ground at high pressures to access natural gas supplies. Lautenberg went on to make the case why federal oversight is needed. After all, waterways and water supplies often do cross state boundaries. “The risk to families isn’t just for those who live near drill sites, but people in other states who drink water. Nothing is more important than the health of our children, and it is unacceptable to trade that for fuel.”
A second hearing, this time in the House of Representatives, has been postponed and no new date has been announced.