Both sides cheer hydraulic fracturing study

Advocates on opposite sides of the debate over hydraulic fracturing in energy development welcomed word Thursday from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that it is launching a comprehensive study into the practice.

The agency will consider whether hydraulic fracturing harms water quality and public health.

The process involves injecting fluids into wells under high pressure to crack open underground formations and increase production of oil and gas.

Its use has been key to natural gas development in areas including western Colorado’s Piceance Basin, and now in underground shale formations in the northeastern United States and other parts of the country. Its increasing use has led to growing concerns about possible environmental and human impacts.

“We commend EPA for investigating this controversial gas drilling technique. From Wyoming to Pennsylvania, people are worried about what this untested process is doing to their drinking water,” Jessica Ennis, legislative associate for Earthjustice, a nonprofit law firm that works on environmental issues, said in a news release.

Ennis said a 2004 EPA study on the practice during the Bush administration “was widely discredited.”

The industry contends hydraulic fracturing has been well-tested and is well-regulated by states and never has resulted in a documented case of contamination of drinking water.

“We are hopeful and it is our expectation that this study — if based on objective, scientific analysis — will serve as an opportunity to highlight the host of steps taken at every well site that make certain groundwater is properly protected,” Lee Fuller, executive director of the industry group Energy in Depth, said in a news release.

He said efforts in Congress to give the EPA authority to regulate hydraulic fracturing should be halted until the study is done. Such authority could harm energy production and job growth, he said.

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, is pursuing legislation to eliminate the exemption of hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act and require disclosure of chemicals used in the practice.

DeGette said in a prepared statement Thursday, “This study may be a challenge, given that companies are not currently required to disclose the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluids.  But it will be a significant step in ensuring that our nation’s drinking water supply is protected.”

Last year, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter called for a study in lieu of immediate federal legislation that he said could prove to be unwarranted and unnecessarily burdensome to the industry.

The EPA said Thursday that based on language in the 2010 fiscal year appropriations bill, it is reallocating $1.9 million for the study.

It will request further funding in President Obama’s budget bill for 2011.


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