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Energy Industry Threatens Water Quality, Sways Congress with Misleading Data

The industry is misleading the public into a false choice between the economy and the environment.

The two key arguments that the oil and gas industry is using to fight federal regulation of the natural gas drilling process called hydraulic fracturing -- that the costs would cripple their business and that state regulations are already strong -- are challenged by the same data and reports the industry is using to bolster its position.

One widely-referenced study(PDF) estimated that complying with regulations would cost the oil and gas industry more than $100,000 per gas well. But the figures are based on 10-year-old estimates and list expensive procedures that aren't mentioned in the proposed regulations.

Another report (PDF) concluded that state regulations for drilling, including fracturing, "are adequately designed to directly protect water." But the report reveals that only four states require regulatory approval before hydraulic fracturing begins. It also outlines how requirements for encasing wells in cement -- a practice the author has said is critical to containing hydraulic fracturing fluids and protecting water -- varies from state to state.

One recommendation in that report flies in face of industry's assertion that its processes are safe: hydraulic fracturing needs more study and should be banned in certain cases near sensitive water supplies.

Hydraulic fracturing -- where water and sand laced with chemicals is injected underground to break up rock -- is considered essential to harvesting deeply buried gas reserves that some predict could meet U.S. demand for 116 years.

In 2005 hydraulic fracturing was exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act, based on assurances that the process was safe. But a series of ProPublica reports has identified a number of cases in which water has been contaminated in drilling areas across the country, and EPA scientists say they can’t fully investigate them because of the exemption.

Now, Congress is considering legislation to restore the Environmental Protection Agency's oversight of the process. And industry -- leveraging its money and political connections -- is using the recent reports to fight back.

Since January at least five studies have been published making the case that state laws (PDF) are adequate and that new regulations could hamper exploration (PDF), raise fuel prices and eliminate jobs. Three of the studies were paid for by the Department of Energy and produced by consulting firms that also work with the industry. One of the DOE reports (PDF) was written by the same person who authored a study for the Independent Petroleum Association of America (PDF)

The industry argues (PDF) that federal oversight would amount to a redundant layer of bureaucracy that is not needed because states already require the same environmental safeguards that might be required by the EPA, and that those safeguards are effective.

"We don't think the system is broke, so we question the value of trying to fix it with a federal solution," Richard Ranger, a senior policy analyst at the American Petroleum Institute, told ProPublica in May. "So proceed with caution if you are going to proceed with regulating this business because it could make a very significant difference in delivering a fuel that is fundamental to economic health."

How many gas wells does your state have? Click to find out.
How many gas wells does your state have? Click to find out.

Industry reports say that if federal regulations are applied to hydraulic fracturing, more than a third of onshore gas wells would be closed and oil and gas companies would spend $10 billion complying with the law in its first year. The federal government would lose some $1.2 billion in revenue.

But advocates for the federal legislation say the industry is misleading the public into a false choice between the economy and the environment.

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