A soon-to-be launched study of hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is no guarantee that the natural gas drilling technique will be subject to more federal regulation, the head of the agency said yesterday. The fracking study was ordered by Congress, and since March, the EPA has been holding hearings in gas drilling states in order to determine its scope.
Fracking, which involves injecting a mixture of water and chemicals into shale deposits under high pressure to release natural gas, is generally exempt from regulation under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
“We expect, within the next month or two, to have the work plan for our study finished,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said yesterday during a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “This study will take a while.”
“One thing I think EPA can do to add to the body of knowledge is to determine whether there are any holes in that regulatory structure,” she continued.
How any such holes could be plugged is open to question. “It’s not necessarily federal regulation that will be needed. It could be. I’m not prejudging that,” Jackson said. “There may be a need for a federal role – we simply don’t know.”
Jackson said the EPA probe could help alleviate public skepticism about the safety of hydraulic fracturing. “What would give the American people comfort with all they are seeing with this technology is the knowledge that regulators are not backing away from looking at it,” Jackson said.
Because fracking is mostly exempt from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act, natural gas drillers are not required to disclose the chemicals that make up fracking fluids. Some studies have found that fracking fluids contain toxic chemicals, including benzene glycol-ethers, toluene, 2-(2-methoxyethoxy) ethanol, and nonylphenols. Fracking proponents have long used arguments about the purported environmental advantages of natural gas to resist efforts to further regulate the industry.
Earlier this week, several natural gas drillers faced scrutiny for using diesel fuel in their fracturing fluids injected into the ground from 2005 to 2009. In a letter to the EPA, Representatives Henry Waxman, D-Calif., Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and Diana DeGette, D-Colo., of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, argued that the use of diesel fuel was a violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act because the companies did not seek permits.
In their letter to the EPA, the lawmakers raised concerns that diesel fuel in the fluids could pollute drinking water supplies, though the probe found no evidence of drinking water contamination from fracking. They urged Jackson to consider the issue “as part of your investigation into the industry’s practices.”