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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 think Salazar is a very strategic target on all of this," said Sarah Tucker, an analyst for Trout Unlimited, a sportsman's group that is lobbying for more oversight of drilling. "He is from an oil and gas district ... that gives him a lot more credibility when working on these issues ... Those moderate Democrats are always the sticking point as to whether or not a bill actually moves."

In an e-mailed response, Salazar said he would still consider voting for the bill, but that he may pursue an alternative compromise.

"I believe that developers may have legitimate concerns about the impact that removing the exemption may have on their ability to find and extract oil and gas," he said. "But ... the current regulatory approach is probably not sustainable and will probably need to be revised in some way."

Passing such legislation has proved difficult in the past. This year's efforts to reverse the exemptions will constitute at least the fourth effort by Democrats to shore up protections against hydraulic fracturing since it became a focus of the White House's Energy Task Force in 2001. According to records of committee debates from 2003, the exemptions were forced through against objections, without hearings by a Republican majority and eventually tucked into the 2005 Energy Policy Act (PDF). Ever since, in the face of intense lobbying, any efforts to address the topic have stalled in committee.

Last year the bill's authors, including Salazar, received a flurry of letters and phone calls urging them not to pursue the legislation. One, addressed to DeGette from Jerry McHugh, president of Denver-based San Juan Resources, said "Now is not the time to impede development of any domestic resources. Please pull your sponsorship."

The industry has spent millions of dollars lobbying Congress on issues including fracturing since 2008, according to disclosure forms filed with Congress. Now, it's circulating new research to bolster its arguments.

The industry -- which has long argued that fracturing has never been proven to have contaminated water -- points to a study published in April by the Department of Energy, which asserts that state laws adequately regulate hydraulic fracturing. But that report, titled " Modern Shale Gas Development in the United States: A Primer[17] " (PDF), and written by the Ground Water Protection Council, a broad consortium that includes industry groups, contains several questionable statements. One passage notes that "the Safe Drinking Water Act regulates the injection of fluids from shale gas activities," without mentioning that the exemptions have created significant exceptions, and that on the whole the act does not regulate all injections.

"You have very substantial economic elements that are concerned about their abilities to do whatever they want to for their own economic advantages," said Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), who is also sponsoring the bill. "They are going to do whatever they can to ensure that there is not a majority of the members here voting for something like this bill."

Abrahm Lustgarten is a former staff writer and contributor for Fortune, and has written for Salon, Esquire, the Washington Post and the New York Times since receiving his master's in journalism from Columbia University in 2003.