House Committee Holds Session on Fracking

     WASHINGTON, D.C. (CN ) – Oil and gas industry officials attempted to minimize concerns about hydraulic fracturing during an appearance before a House committee last week, but doubtful Democrats questioned why industry witnesses should be trusted over environmental advocates.
     Hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” is a technique of well stimulation in which rock is fractured using a high-pressure slurry comprised of water, sand and chemicals. It is most often done in conjunction with horizontal drilling to extract natural gas from layers of shale deep in the Earth.
     Congressman Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, opened the hearing by describing fracking as one of the greatest technological and economic breakthroughs of the oil and gas industry.
     Not only has it created “hundreds of thousands of jobs,” Smith said, it has “made America significantly more energy independent.”
     But opponents of the practice argue that the environmental impacts of fracking far outweigh the benefits. They contend the hydraulic fracturing threatens to contaminate ground water, degrades air quality, causes noise and other surface pollution and potentially triggers earthquakes.
     Smith dismissed those fears, saying that many Americans are being misled by fracking opponents.
     The Environmental Protection Agency has made several prominent claims that fracking has been proven to contaminate water only to later retract its claims, Smith claim.
     The EPA’s claims convince citizens fracking is unsafe, and they never hear about the EPA’s retractions, the congressman complained..
     Witnesses who testified at the hearing included Christi Craddick, Chairman of the Railroad Commission of Texas; Dr. Donald Siegel, professor and department chair of the Department of Earth Sciences at Syracuse University; Simon Lomax, Western Director of Energy In Depth, a program of the Independent Petroleum Association of America; and Elgie Holstein, Senior Director for Strategic Planning at Environmental Defense Fund, a national environmental advocacy organization.
     Craddick’s organization serves as Texas’ primary regulatory agency for the hydraulic fracturing industry, and she testified that the commission develops rules “grounded in science and fact” to keep fracking safe for the public and the environment. There have been no confirmed incidents of groundwater contamination caused by fracking in Texas, Craddick said.
     Local government bans on fracking have the potential to hurt many Texans and the state’s economy, Craddick said.
     The city of Denton, Texas, enacted a ban on fracking in November 2014, which was promptly met with multiple lawsuits. It is the Railroad Commission’s goal, Craddick said, to educate the public on what she described as the real science behind hydraulic fracturing, and prevent local governments or citizens from hindering fracking’s progress based on “misinformation.”
     Simon Lomax, western director of Energy In Depth, an industry advocacy group, then went on to assail New York State’s recent ban on fracking.
     New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, often discussed as a possible Democratic candidate for president in 2016, signed the ban into law in December.
     But Lomax said Cuomo’s decision was “completely at odds” with repeated findings that fracking has been done safely for decades.
     He went on to say that in embracing the ban, Cuomo relied only on research that was gathered and reviewed by people opposed to the use of shale gas.
     Siegel testified that fracking will not systemically lead to drinking water contamination.
     He based that assessment on work he performed for the Chesapeake Energy Corporation, which hired him to analyze 34,000 groundwater samples from Pennsylvania and surrounding states for contamination as a result of drilling operations.
     Their testing showed that high and low concentrations of natural gas are found in groundwater with no discernible pattern in reference to how close the samples were to gas wells; thus, there was no evidence that hydraulic fracturing caused high concentrations of natural gas in groundwater, Siegel said.
     As the only witness not paid by the oil and gas industry, Holstein emphasized that Environmental Defense Fund has been partnering with people and organizations on all sides of the fracking debate, to determine how to strike the right balance between the risks and benefits.
     There are substantial public health risks associated with the rapid expansion of fracking, Holstein testified, but “the good news is that solutions are available, the costs of preventative and remedial action are low, and new technology to address those risks at even lower cost is increasingly available.”
     Local and state government are legitimately concerned about real issues in hydraulic fracturing, Holstein said.
     These issues include poorly constructed wells create pathways for groundwater contamination; billions of gallons of water are used annually by the oil and gas industry, causing water supply problems in drought-plagued areas, and sometimes leading to stream and groundwater pollution.
     He also said dense concentrations of shale gas operations has led to air quality problems in some communities; the public is not always familiar with the chemicals used in fracking; high volume disposal of wastewater for fracking has been proven to increase seismic activities, causing earthquakes; small communities with new oil and gas booms are struggling to maintain basic infrastructure; and the high methane production of natural gas operations may soon cancel out the environmental benefits of natural gas over coal.
     Several committee members asked the panel about recently published findings by the Oklahoma Geological Survey that wastewater injections are causing earthquakes.
     Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, said the earthquakes are a serious issue, and that citizens are well within their rights to enact local laws to ban a process that can increase their frequency.
     John then asked the panel if the Oklahoma findings are truly being addressed by the industry.
     Lomax said he wasn’t denying the accuracy or the significance of the earthquake findings, but argued that wastewater injection is a completely different process than hydraulic fracturing, and the vast majority of the 140,000 wastewater disposal wells have been operating without incident for decades.
     Many committee members were encouraged by the panel’s testimonies in favor of fracking, but some continued to express their doubts.
     “I have a lot of concern about fracturing,” said Congressman Bill Posey, R-Palm Bay. “It’s hard to tell who’s telling the truth, and who’s not telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

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