DeGette, Polis seek to expand fracking study, push for tougher health protections

U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette and Jared Polis are calling on President Obama to strengthen environmental and public health standards to protect against risks posed by hydraulic fracturing.

In a letter to the president, the two Colorado Democrats, along with Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y, ask Obama to support the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act, which would require the disclosure of chemicals used in the natural gas extraction process called “fracking.”

In his State of the Union speech last month, Obama emphasized natural gas as a key resource in his “all-of-the-above” strategy to reduce the nation’s reliance on foreign oil and to make the United States a global leader in clean energy. Obama followed it up with speeches at Buckley Air Force Base and another in Nevada in which he called the United States “the Saudi Arabia of natural gas.”

Rep. Diana DeGette

“With hydraulic fracturing expanding across the country, it is more important than ever we ensure the economic benefits of natural gas do not come at the expense of the health and safety of our families,” DeGette said Thursday.

DeGette, Hinchey, and Polis also requested an expansion of an ongoing Environmental Protection Agency study of hydraulic fracturing, which received a congressional hearing Wednesday so charged Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Josh Fox of “Gasland” ended up in handcuffs.

“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is currently embarking on the first, independent and comprehensive study of the risks that hydraulic fracturing poses to drinking water,” their letter states. “Unfortunately, media reports indicate that some in the oil and gas industry are seeking to narrow and even undermine this important study. This must not be allowed to happen. We urge you to maintain a strong commitment to the research that is under way by providing the necessary resources and support. We also urge you to consider expanding this research to cover hydraulic fracturing’s impact on air quality and human health.”

The House members also questioned the shale gas statistics cited in the State of the Union address.

Rep. Jared Polis

“We also believe it’s critical to have an accurate understanding of exactly how much shale gas lies beneath the surface,” their letter states. “Much has been said about our country’s potential supply of shale gas. Some in the industry have claimed we have an ocean of natural gas buried beneath our surface. Despite these claims, independent estimates about shale gas reserves reveal great uncertainty. In fact, just this week, the Energy Information Administration slashed its estimate of technically recoverable resources of U.S. shale gas by half. Furthermore, the United States Geological Survey’s estimates released last year are even lower. This is an enormous swing and it should be a caution to those who claim these new shale gas fields are the silver bullet to our country’s energy challenge. We must take care to ensure that any ‘bridge fuel,’ doesn’t instead prove to be a bridge to nowhere.”

On Tuesday, in the lead up to a hearing on a controversial federal study of water contamination from natural gas drilling, residents in the Pavillion, Wyo., area voiced unwavering support for the EPA.

“The Pavillion area was heavily drilled for natural gas,” said John Fenton, an alfalfa farmer. “No consideration was given to well spacing or to the impacts on the people or the environment. Our land and the land of our neighbors has been damaged and devalued. The water has been contaminated and the air fouled. Our health has also been attacked, my wife is losing her sense of smell and her sense of taste, my youngest son has developed seizures and I suffer chronic headaches and fatigue.”

Fenton was one of three landowners from the Pavillion area to speak to the press in a teleconference the day before the hearing over the EPA’s draft report, which has been criticized by gas industry executives, Wyoming officials and some members of Congress.

At the hearing, GOP lawmakers questioned the integrity of the EPA’s draft report, alleging it “jumps to conclusions” in making connections between fracking and water contamination. EPA officials clarified the scope of the draft report and explained the uniqueness of the Pavillion gas field.

“We make clear that the causal link to hydraulic fracturing has not been demonstrated conclusively, and that our analysis is limited to the particular geologic conditions in the Pavillion gas field and should be assumed to apply to fracturing in other geologic settings,” James B. Martin, EPA’s Region 8 administrator in Denver, testified. “It should be noted that fracturing in Pavillion is taking place in and below the drinking water aquifer and in close proximity to drinking water wells — production conditions different from those in many other areas of the country.”

The EPA on Tuesday issued more than 600 new pages of data to support its draft report.

Fenton praised the EPA for paying attention.

Louis Meeks’ well water contains methane gas, hydrocarbons, lead and copper, according to the EPA’s test results. When he drilled a new water well, it also showed contaminants. (Photo by Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica)

“When the people of the Pavillion area began to notice negative impacts to their water they looked to the state and industry to provide answers and help to remedy the contamination,” he said. “However there was no help from the state of Wyoming or the natural gas industry. The people of the Pavillion area were told that there was no way the natural gas drilling and fracking operations in the Pavillion area could have caused damage to the water. When industry did admit that problems existed they blamed the impact on the landowners saying that they lacked proper hygiene or that they had contaminated the wells themselves.”

“During the entire time we’ve known our water is bad, we contacted our elected officials, the Wyoming Governor, Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, and the BLM, who administer the Tribe’s minerals under our property, asking for help. They continually said our water was fine,” added landowner Louis Meeks. “While reading the EIS for the Wind River Gas Field Development Project, I saw Region 8 EPA Greg Oberley’s name and called him to ask for EPA’s help. Several of our impacted neighbors also contacted the EPA. After site tours of the Pavillion area, we were invited to go to Denver to explain the problems we were having with our water. We welcome and are thankful for the help that the EPA has given us.”

The EPA is extending the public comment period on its study into March and it also sent out a request for peer review. Martin and other officials stressed that the study is not final.

In the meantime, natural gas prices are plunging due to a surge in supply. Several oil and gas companies recently announced plans to close off natural gas wells, pull out rigs and slow spending.

Troy Hooper covers environmental policy for the American Independent News Network. His work has been published in The Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, Huffington Post, San Francisco Weekly, Playboy, New York Post, People and dozens of other publications. Hooper has covered the Winter Olympics in Italy, an extreme ski camp in South America and gone behind the scenes with Hunter S. Thompson on election night in 2004. Born and raised in Boulder, Hooper has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

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