Denver Post op-ed from July 11th, 2009

(Thanks to Julie Kollar for flagging this article.)

EPA should revisit fracking

Before rules are set governing the procedure, it would be wise to further investigate charges of drinking water contamination.
The Denver Post

Posted: 07/11/2009 01:00:00 AM MDT

The vigorous debate over hydraulic fracturing — an oil and gas extraction technique — has raised an important question that must be answered before federal lawmakers consider additional regulation.  In short, has the process of pumping fracturing fluid into the ground to release oil and gas contaminated drinking water?

Gov. Bill Ritter this week urged U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, to take her foot off the accelerator on regulatory efforts, suggesting further study first.  We think that’s a prudent policy move.

It’s probably no coincidence that it also is a move that will play well politically for the governor on the Western Slope, where there is heavy oil and gas activity and where he has taken a political beating since enacting new rules on the industry.   Industry proponents will tell you the contamination question was asked and answered in a 2004 study by the Bush administration’s Environmental Protection Agency. It declared fracking “poses little or no threat” to drinking water.

But that study was heavily criticized both inside and outside the agency for its lack of rigor.  The conclusions in the report so riled Weston Wilson, a longtime EPA scientist in Denver, that he publicly criticized it, sending a letter to several members of Congress in which he laid out an eight-point argument citing problems with the study and its conclusion.

“I think the agency acted egregiously,” Wilson told the Rocky Mountain News in a 2005 interview. “It’s not fulfilling its responsibility to protect the public health.”

Indeed, there have been numerous anecdotes of contamination in drilling areas, but proving a link to fracking has been elusive. Industry officials say that’s because there isn’t one.

But others, including regulators, say they are hampered by not knowing exactly what is in fracking fluid (since most companies keep the ingredient list secret) and a lack of jurisdiction to investigate.   DeGette last month introduced a bill in Congress that would remove the 2005 exemption that allows fracking to skirt the Safe Drinking Water Act. The measure would, in effect, require new natural-gas wells to get EPA permits to use the fracking process.

Ritter called fracking “essential to the development of Colorado gas resources,” adding, “We have to understand the problems and the risks before we act.”   Despite Ritter’s request, DeGette is planning to hold a hearing on the bill.   Kristofer Eisenal, a spokesman for DeGette, told The Post, “The congresswoman is moving forward with the legislation, but everything is on the table — a study, a hearing.”

We think the EPA should revisit the hydraulic fracturing issue and, with this administration’s publicly stated vow to follow the science on these sorts of issues, conduct a thorough study.   If the agency needs support or authorization from Congress to investigate, we hope federal lawmakers move expeditiously to provide it.

Such an investigation will, we hope, make clear the sort of hydraulic fracturing policies Congress should pursue.