House Democrats who have led the charge for greater regulation of a controversial natural gas production technique are taking their chemical-disclosure rhetoric to the Gulf of Mexico.
Environmentalists and some scientists have bemoaned the broad use of chemical dispersants to break apart the massive slick in the Gulf, and they are beginning to worry about the effects of the drilling muds BP PLC used in its failed "top kill" attempt to cap the leaking wellhead two weeks ago.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are listening.
"It's BP's spill, but it's America's ocean," Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said yesterday at an Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing. "It's America's people exposed to these consequences."
Markey called on BP to "release immediately the chemicals included in that drilling mud so there can be complete, immediate, scientific analysis of what those chemicals are and what harm they are causing not only to ocean animals and fauna, but also human beings."
Markey, chairman of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee, has been heading up an investigation -- along with full committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) -- into the chemicals used during hydraulic fracturing, an oil and gas production technique that blasts sand, water and chemicals into a wellbore to break apart compact rock and release trapped hydrocarbons.
Scientists told Markey they have not been able to access detailed information about the components of drilling muds to determine whether the thousands of gallons of heavy fluid BP pumped into the wellbore -- and subsequently out the broken blowout preventer and riser pipe into the water column -- are harmful to ocean ecosystems.
"When I looked into the composition in drilling muds, there were some data gaps," said Gina Solomon, a University of California, San Francisco, professor and member of U.S. EPA's Science Advisory Board. "I found a little data suggesting heavy metal contamination and that raised my level of interest and concern higher."
Industry experts say the muds BP used in the top kill attempt were safe.
Bill Eustes, a petroleum engineering professor at the Colorado School of Mines, said they were "environmentally benign."
Markey said he would help the scientists find out the ingredients from BP so they can conduct independent research into their environmental effects. He also promised to help pinpoint more details about the dispersants BP has used both on the surface and below the surface of the Gulf to break apart the slick.
Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), the driving force behind an effort to require drillers to disclose the ingredients of their fracturing fluids, also expressed concern about dispersant use in a separate House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing.
"A lot of people are saying we're trading the devil we know for the devil we don't know," DeGette said. "Do you think that we know enough now that dispersed oil is less harmful to the ecosystem than no dispersed oil?"
A group of scientists from academia, the federal government and industry met late last month to study dispersant use in the ongoing response effort and determined that so far, the "use of dispersants and the effects of dispersing oil into the water column has generally been less environmentally harmful than allowing the oil to migrate on the surface into the sensitive wetlands and near shore coastal habitats."
But many remain unconvinced.
"Considering the United States has not had an oil spill greater than 1 million gallons in almost 20 years, 1 million gallons of dispersant is nevertheless a sizeable amount," Christopher Reddy, a scientist who studies marine pollution at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said at the Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing.
"If not deployed in a proper, effective and accurate manner, adding more chemicals to an oil spill may increase damages in the area," he added.
Funding for spill research
Other lawmakers raised questions about funding levels at federal agencies that research oil spills and cleanup technologies.
Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife Subcommittee Chairwoman Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam) said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Response and Restoration was "severely underfunded."
The House member said she was concerned the agency would not be able to respond to another spill -- if one occurred -- since resources are already spread thin in the Gulf.
The director of that program, David Westerholm, said the agency would do its best "but all our resources are on the Gulf." He added that if Congress did appropriate additional annual funding to the program, "we would use that money to do some good."
Jane Lyder, deputy assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks at the Interior Department, said her agency would do the same.
Reporter Mike Soraghan contributed.