EPA to study hydraulic fracturing, but calls for FRAC Act continue

Backers of the controversial FRAC (Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals) Act, including co-sponsor Diana DeGette (D-Denver), were quick to caution Thursday that a proposed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study of hydraulic fracturing shouldn’t be seen as an alternative to legislation.

U.S. Rep. DeGette, who introduced the bill last summer with co-sponsor Jared Polis (D-Boulder), said in a release Thursday that the FRAC Act will move forward but that she supports the $1.9 million EPA study and will work to fund it for next year.

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is the process of injecting water and sand, treated with undisclosed chemicals, into natural gas wells under extremely higher pressure. Used in an estimated 90 percent of the wells in Colorado, fracking breaks open tight underground geological formations and frees up more gas.

Critics of the process say it can lead to contamination of groundwater supplies despite extensive drilling safeguards meant to prevent such problems. DeGette’s bill would remove a 2005 exemption for process under the Safe Drinking Water Act, which was granted during the Bush administration and dubbed by the left the “Haliburton Loophole” after the drilling services company that perfected widely used fracking techniques.

In Colorado, governments and state agencies are split on the need for federal legislation, and industry representatives maintain the process is totally safe, easily handled by state regulators and that any evidence of drinking water contamination – including incidents in which streams have actually become flammable – is purely anecdotal.

The EPA reviewed various studies on fracking in 2004, a process discredited in some circles, and concluded it did not present a major public health threat, but recent EPA tests in neighboring Wyoming and other areas have led to increased concern, especially as the process became more and more popular in recent years.

“We commend EPA for investigating this controversial gas drilling technique,” Earthjustice legislative associate Jessica Ennis said in a release. “From Wyoming to Pennsylvania, people are worried about what this untested process is doing to their drinking water.”

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Here’s DeGette’s statement:

“I applaud EPA’s decision to undertake a comprehensive study of the potential environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing. Such an effort has never truly been done. In 2004, EPA conducted a review of the issue that stopped short of the full scientific assessment and independent analysis that is required.

“This study may be a challenge, given that companies are not currently required to disclose the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluids. But it will be a significant step in ensuring that our nation’s drinking water supply is protected. I look forward to working with EPA to provide the resources it needs to conduct a full evaluation of this important issue.”