Fractured logic on water exemption

Back in 2005 when, as part of the Energy Policy Act, Congress decided that hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas deposits should be exempt from the provisions of the Safe Water Drinking Act, the legislation won bipartisan support, though far more Republicans voted for the measure than Democrats.

Now, with Democrats firmly in control of both houses of Congress, as well as the White House, congressional leaders are rethinking that exemption.

We believe that’s entirely appropriate.

It isn’t just the political arithmetic that’s changed, however.

For one thing, the success of hydraulic fracturing — often called “fraccing” — has opened up new areas of the country to drilling.

Back in 2005, much of the natural gas drilling involving fraccing was taking place on the wide-open lands of the West. Now, hydraulic fracturing techniques have made it possible to explore for gas in states such as West Virginia, Pennsylvania and even New York. As a result, there’s more interest in drilling and its impacts from Eastern politicians than there was three years ago. Few things focus the attention of members of Congress like having a controversial
activity occur in their own district.

More importantly, new research in Wyoming and Colorado is raising questions about the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing and how they may affect drinking water supplies.

It may be true, as industry advocates say, that there has never been a documented case of hydraulic fracturing contaminating groundwater. But there is increasing evidence from places like Sublette County, Wyo., that chemicals associated with fracturing can show up in drinking water wells.

And more and more people — scientists among them — are questioning a 2004 report by the Environmental Protection Agency that said fraccing posed no risk to drinking water. That report was a large part of the reason for the exemption in the 2005 Energy Policy Act.

As we have said many times, natural gas is an important, clean-burning factor in the nation’s energy equation, and it is a critical part of this region’s economy right now. Exploration and production must be allowed to continue.

But that doesn’t mean the industry should be exempt from the Safe Drinking Water rules that apply to virtually every other industry. Given the current makeup of Congress, it’s unlikely they will remain exempt much longer.


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