EPA to research fracking and methane contamination

U.S. EPA expects to spend $12 million on its study of the safety of hydraulic fracturing and will also research problems with methane contaminating water wells.

Methane contamination, which can cause houses to explode and make faucets flammable, has commonly been associated with leaking drill pipes, not the underground injection of fluids in hydraulic fracturing.

But Paul Anastas, EPA's science adviser and assistant administrator for the Office of Research and Development, told a House panel today that it will be included in the agency's study, which is to be completed in 2014, with a preliminary report in 2012.

House Science Chairman Ralph Hall (R-Texas) pressed Anastas on why EPA was focusing on hydraulic fracturing. He noted that a recent academic study found no problems with fracturing but suggested that shale gas drilling is causing widespread methane contamination in rural Pennsylvania.

"This study is looking at both of those questions," Anastas said.


EPA's study has been contentious from the start, as drilling critics packed hearing halls for the "scoping" process, environmental groups and industry lobbied to get their favored scientists on the peer review panel, and the agency tangled with Halliburton Co. about what information the company should hand over.

In today's hearing, Republicans attacked the study as yet another example of overreach by the Obama administration.

Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) compared it to EPA's decision to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. "I believe this administration is trying to stop domestic oil and gas production and is using this [study] as part of that effort," he said.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) said the study was being driven by "a bunch of bureaucrats and left-wingers from universities who want to scare people."

But Democrats defended the study. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) said it is not yet clear whether Congress should enact stronger regulations on shale drilling.

"Maybe we do, maybe we don't," Johnson said. "We simply do not have enough data yet to say, nor will we if industry is not forthcoming in disclosing the chemicals it uses and if Congress does not allow EPA to do its job of determining the risks of these practices."

Broun and Hall also lashed out at EPA for setting ground rules on Anastas' participation in the hearing. EPA was not going to send Anastas to testify unless he testified separately from other witnesses at the hearing. The committee scheduled him to appear alone after five other witnesses finished testifying.

Hall said he had contacted EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to express his concerns but she did not reply.

Letters from EPA show that Arvin Ganesan, deputy associate administrator for congressional affairs, wrote to the committee's top staffer three times in March and April explaining that it was a custom observed by many other committees.

"It minimizes any appearance of inappropriate confrontation or communication between administration officials and other witnesses regarding pending litigation or enforcement action," Ganesan wrote. He added that at the time the letter was written, April 1, he did not know who the witnesses would be.

EPA sets stage for study

EPA's Scientific Advisory Board is currently reviewing the draft study plan that the agency put together for the study. And EPA has requested information from nine companies that provide fracturing services to well operators.

EPA got $1.9 million for the study in fiscal 2010 and requested $4.3 million in fiscal 2011 and $6 million for 2012.

EPA has already studied fracturing once, concluding it was safe because the toxins in fracturing fluid either are sucked back up or degrade underground. But Anastas said that the 2004 study is "not relevant" to the current study, because it looked only at coal-bed methane wells.

A regulator whose state is grappling with new shale gas drilling welcomed the information it could bring and said he saw a role for the federal government in the regulation of fracturing and drilling.

"A federal regulatory floor would ensure at least minimal protection," Maryland Department of the Environment Secretary Robert Summers said.

In that, he is unlike most state regulators in gas-producing states.

"We feel like we have a good handle on fracturing in Michigan," said Harold Fitch, Michigan's state geologist and a board member of the Ground Water Protection Council.

The academic report cited by Hall was done by scientists at Duke University. It found that methane levels were 17 times higher in water wells near gas drilling operations in Pennsylvania and New York than those farther than 3,000 feet away.

But Michael Economides, a University of Houston professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, rejected the findings, saying the researchers failed to collect baseline data.

"If they were my students, I would give them an F," Economides said.

Under questioning by Democrats, Economides explained that he gets a dollar a year for teaching but $1 million a year in consulting for oil and gas producers on fracturing.

"I'm the guy who has written the textbooks on fracturing," Economides said.

For copies of EPA's letters to the Science Committee, click here, here and here.

Click here for Hall's letter to Jackson.

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