OIL AND GAS:

Industry defends fracking during Issa field hearing

Petroleum industry officials defended hydraulic fracturing as a means to expand domestic oil and natural gas production during a field hearing today in Bakersfield, Calif.

House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) hosted a panel of pro-fracturing witnesses who argued for looser regulations to help create jobs in California and lower the highest gasoline prices in the country.

Tupper Hull, vice president of strategic communications for the Western States Petroleum Association, described California as an "energy island" with few pipelines to other states that would help balance in-state oil production with out-of-state supplies.

Fracturing, a technique by which sand and water are injected underground to crack open rock and release oil or gas, would help address California's relative isolation, lower gas prices and limit the number of foreign oil tankers docking at Golden State ports to unload fossil fuels, he said.

"Californians pay a price in volatility ... because of this isolation," Hull said.

Bakersfield and surrounding Kern County are a regional hub for California oil and gas production. Proposals to drill and use hydraulic fracturing in the region have drawn intense criticism from activists and local citizens, while industry has pushed back on proposed new regulations.

Another witness, William Whitsitt, executive vice president of Devon Energy Corp., argued that possible EPA rules on fracturing would cost his company about $1 billion a year to implement. "That looks to us like it is a totally wrongheaded policy," he said.

The debate about hydraulic fracturing has intensified as advances in the technology have opened vast gas-bearing formations in densely populated areas, like the Northeast. Critics say fracturing could cause some of the hazardous chemicals in the fluid to find its way into groundwater, but industry representatives say the fluid would have to travel upward through thousands of feet of rock, and there has never been a proven case of that happening.

Democrats in Congress have proposed legislation to let EPA regulate fracturing under the Safe Drinking Water Act, but the bills have never gotten out of committee. EPA has begun a multi-year study into threats to drinking water posed by fracturing, but no results are expected until next year.

That the field hearing took place at all was controversial after liberal activists this week accused Issa of trying to stage a "pep rally" for industry. A California group, Courage Campaign, today handed Issa a petition against fracturing, saying it could contaminate water supplies and lead to localized oil spills.

Issa during the hearing responded that the risks associated with oil tankers are far greater than those of onshore fracturing or other land-based drilling methods. He also thanked the group for the petition and asked them to think about how many jobs would be lost because of burdensome regulations.

"Consider ... asking yourself what is standing in the way of job creation," he said just before closing the hearing.

Earlier, Issa offered his own defense of fracturing, saying it would help the United States to transition to natural gas from coal. He also chided Energy Secretary Steven Chu for not supporting a technology that has been used for decades.

"We shouldn't need Secretary Chu to endlessly study something you've been doing for 60 years," he said.

Sullivan is based in San Francisco.