Friction over disclosure of fracking fluids leads to bill


WASHINGTON — Rep. Diana DeGette says she is not opposed to hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” — a process used by companies to extract natural gas from deep inside the earth.

DeGette just wants the companies to be transparent about what they put in fracking fluids, and she wants oil and gas companies to have to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The Denver Democrat, along with Rep. Jared Polis, a Boulder Democrat, has introduced legislation that would require oil and gas companies to disclose what’s in fracking fluids.

The bill would also put the companies — now exempt from the Drinking Water Act — back under the regulatory eye of the Environmental Protection Agency.

“(Oil and gas companies) say there is nothing harmful in the fracking fluids,” DeGette said. “That’s fine. At the very least, disclose what they are.”

In the past, companies have used diesel fuel and possibly other harmful chemicals in the fracking process, according to a House investigation that looked at records in 19 states between 2005 and 2009.

Industry officials say they do not oppose fracking fluid disclosure on its merit, but “there is profound skepticism in federal involvement in this disclosure,” said Michael McKenna, an oil and gas lobbyist and Republican strategist.

Companies view a federal requirement as onerous because it would be on top of already-existing multiple layers of state regulations, he said.

“Let’s not have the federal government involved,” he said. “It slows the process down to a crawl and it increases costs and it leads to a lot of unhappiness.”

Plus, McKenna points out the EPA already has the authority to know whether the companies use diesel fuel in the fracking process.

Parsing what happens during hydraulic fracturing has gained prominence politically due, in part, to increased drilling in New York and Pennsylvania; the popularity of the documentary “Gasland”; and a push from the environmental community to make consistent a patchwork of regulations in states where natural gas mining is booming.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar earlier this year moved to more closely regulate fracking fluids on gas mining on U.S. Bureau of Land Management land.

The issue faces a battle in the GOP-controlled House, where DeGette and Polis will probably confront two fellow Colorado delegation members, Republican Reps. Cory Gardner and Doug Lamborn, who oppose the federal government telling states how to regulate the practice.

“I don’t think we need a federal bureaucracy piled atop of state regulations at this time; states are doing a very good job,” said Lamborn, a member of the natural gas caucus. “If we make it more difficult and costly and time consuming to bring energy to the market, it doesn’t help our economy.”

Worrisome to environmentalists and some residents who live near gas wells is whether the fluids used in fracturing seep into drinking water, even though that has not been proved in most water-well investigations.

In Colorado, rules were updated in 2008 to require a cement bond log to be run on all casing so that aquifers would be protected, said Dave Neslin, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

Neslin also says his commission requires companies to disclose what is in fracking fluids, if they are asked.

“We investigated a lot of water-well complaints this year — people who believe their water well has been contaminated,” Neslin said. “In each instance it’s been something like fluids leaking from a pit or a leak in a pipe. It has not involved hydraulic fracturing.”

Colorado led the country in taking a tougher approach to fracking, Neslin said, and several states, including Wyoming, have followed suit. Wyoming took it a step further than Colorado, requiring companies to publicly disclose what is in frack fluids.

That is not good enough for DeGette and Polis. They say that aquifers do not know state boundaries and that people living next to gas wells should feel that their water is safe, regardless of their ZIP code.

“We’re looking at providing a baseline for public safety,” Polis said. “We don’t think residents anywhere should have to worry about it.”

Neslin is hesitant to support the new legislation because he is concerned it will add additional work to already- strapped state staffers.

“It could have an ironic effect of limiting our current application of other environmental regulations — (work that) helps protect the environment,” Neslin said.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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