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EPA has no business regulating fracking

James Kellogg

Domestic natural gas provides nearly 25 percent of electricity in the United States. This proportion stands to increase as additional shale gas deposits become accessible due to the combination of directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking). This vast resource can provide the nation with plentiful and affordable energy, reduce dependence on foreign oil, and stimulate job creation and economic growth.

Unfortunately, the federal government appears poised to stymie natural gas production and collection with federal regulations.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently proposed new rules aimed at air quality and wastewater associated with hydraulically fractured gas wells. And while experts agree the likelihood of properly injected fracturing fluid reaching drinking water through fractures is remote, an EPA study on the effects of fracking on drinking water resources is under way.

Many states, and the gas industry, see EPA actions as unwarranted, stripping state regulatory programs of control and flexibility. This position is bolstered by the comments of EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

In a Nov. 20, 2011, interview, Jackson stated, “We have no data right now that lead us to believe one way or the other that there needs to be specific federal regulation of the fracking process.” The next day she said, “States are stepping up and doing a good job. It doesn’t have to be the EPA that regulates the 10,000 wells that might go in.”

So why is EPA attempting to wrest regulatory control from states? Part of the answer is apparent in assertions by the Sierra Club. It says, “fracking should not be permitted unless it can be demonstrated that drinking water aquifers and surface waters are adequately protected from contamination.” The burden of proof is on the accused.

Not surprisingly, the federal government responded to the environmental special interests. President Obama instructed Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu to form a subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB) to “make recommendations to address the safety and environmental performance of shale gas production.”

In a draft final report released Nov. 18, 2011, the SEAB Shale Gas Production Subcommittee deemed that state regulators and companies are deeply involved in environmental management. It also opined that the State Review of Oil and Gas Environmental Regulators (STRONGER) and the Ground Water Protection Council (GWPC) are effectively enhancing regulatory policy and practices at the state level.

The report also expressed support for FracFocus.org, an online disclosure of fracturing fluid chemicals used by the industry. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is contemplating a requirement that fracking companies operating in Colorado use this website. However, the subcommittee did recognize the need to protect legitimate fracking fluid trade secrets.

In short, SEAB confirmed that state and local governments should continue to take the lead on regulating the natural gas industry. Yet SEAB still recommended that EPA continue new rule-making regarding shale gas production. It’s no wonder states and industry feel the system is rigged against them.

The industrywide cost of coming into full compliance with the proposed EPA regulations on air pollution would be more than $700 million annually. “Green completions,” which reduce gas escape during the final stages of well construction, would be required for every well, not just when it is operationally and economically feasible.

Despite a lack of data, EPA claims federal pre-treatment standards will reduce risk of contamination downstream of facilities that treat wastewater from fracking operations. The federal regulations would not consider local geology and disposal methodology like current state rules. We will all pay the price for this.

Americans should oppose federal overregulation of fracking. States and local governments are already committed to environmental stewardship with qualified personnel and local knowledge. They have the greatest stake in the economic benefits and environmental impacts of gas production. Excessive federal regulation will provide minimal additional environmental protection at the expense of affordable energy and economic recovery.

“Right Angles” appears on the first and third Tuesdays of the month. James Kellogg of New Castle is a professional engineer, author of the novel “E-Force,” and founder of LiberTEAWatch.com. Contact him at jamesdkellogg@yahoo.com.