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Congress May Close Huge Drilling Industry Loophole that Threatens Clean Drinking Water

Congress is having second thoughts about the environmental dangers posed by the burgeoning gas drilling industry.

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"I find it kind of a novel argument that it will be burdensome to comply with one federal law when they could potentially have to comply with 50 state laws," she said. "I just think that they don't want to have to do it."

A key question for proponents and opponents alike is how strong a stance President Barack Obama's administration will strike on this legislation. A White House spokesman said that the administration hasn't yet taken a position.

The Safe Drinking Water Act, enacted in 1974, governs what chemicals can be injected underground and applies to essentially every industrial activity in the United States. It limits what levels of pollution are allowed, but then permits states to create more detailed regulations if they choose. The law also sets minimum standards for well design and other protections of health and safety.

"We are not aware of any other industries that have an exemption," said Stephen Heare, director of the Drinking Water Protection Division at the Environmental Protection Agency.

As the law currently stands, the EPA is not allowed to set conditions for hydraulic fracturing or even require states to have regulations of their own.

States often look to the federal agencies for guidance on how to craft environmental rules. And hydraulic fracturing is an especially complicated process that scientists say warrants more study. The current regime leaves state agencies -- which are often understaffed and underfunded -- to do their own research and develop their own best practices, according to EPA scientists.

Natural gas, used for heating, electricity and manufacturing, supplies a fifth of the energy used in the United States and is an increasingly valued resource. According to the Energy Information Administration, domestic gas reserves, including those held in vast shale deposits that underlie the Appalachian states, could meet the country's natural gas needs for more than 100 years. Without hydraulic fracturing, which is now used in almost all new gas wells, much of this supply would remain beyond reach, according to the American Petroleum Institute.

Natural gas is also widely viewed as an important transitional fuel in American climate and energy policy -- emitting 23 percent less carbon dioxide per unit of energy than oil. Its development has spurred jobs and economic activity in some of the poorest and most rural parts of the U.S.

But as gas drilling has expanded, a wave of reports have emerged that the drilling is affecting water. In Colorado and Wyoming, state and federal officials have concluded that benzene and other contaminants have made their way into aquifers, streams and well water as a result of drilling accidents or spills of drilling fluids. Officials have linked methane gas in groundwater to drilling in Colorado (PDF), Ohio (PDF) and Pennsylvania. Fracturing may or may not be to blame, EPA officials say; it's hard to tell because they don't oversee the process and can't trace chemicals that are unidentified.

"We're not talking about banning fracking here. What we're for is regulating it," said Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), a co-sponsor of the House bill, emphasizing that his hope is to give scientists the tools to measure, and to control, its impact on the environment. "Other than oil and gas companies, I am not aware of anyone that supports allowing that to continue in an unregulated way."

Even so, DeGette will need to gather support from some representatives in states that stand to reap substantial economic benefits from drilling. The retreat of Salazar, a prominent moderate whose co-sponsorship helped draw support for a similar measure in the House last year, is a warning sign that the passage is not preordained.