EPA Chief Grilled on Safety of Hydraulic Fracturing

Wall Street Journal
3 March 2011
By Ryan Tracy

WASHINGTON—The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as part of its review of a natural-gas drilling procedure, is looking at the radioactivity of wastewater used in the process.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, speaking at a congressional hearing Thursday, defended her agency's efforts to study the safety of natural-gas drilling and left the door open to further regulatory action on the issue. The process, known as hydraulic fracturing, is used to extract hard-to-reach natural-gas pockets in the ground.

Ms. Jackson suggested that if public water-treatment plants couldn't adequately treat wastewater from hydraulic fracturing to safe levels—a central concern of critics of extraction method—EPA could impose standards on drillers who send the waste to the plants.

"EPA can at any time set additional standards for what we call pretreatment, for waste that may go to a treatment plant," Ms. Jackson said.

Hydraulic fracturing involves injecting a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals underground at high pressures to release natural gas from shale deposits. In recent years, new technology has unlocked shale gas that was not previously accessible, leading to a boom of new wells across the country.

Critics say environmental regulators and the industry have failed to ensure the practice is safe, particularly with respect to fracturing fluid contaminating drinking water.

"What we see here are deliberate attempts to shield from the public additional concerns expressed by EPA scientists," said Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D., N.Y.) said at a congressional hearing on EPA's budget.

Ms. Jackson pushed back. "We have used a transparent, consensus-based process to scope the study," she told lawmakers at the hearing. "We don't want to stifle science."

She said EPA intends to study the issue and take action to enforce the law if it has evidence of violations and if states, which she called the "primary" enforcers, do not act.

Mr. Hinchey pressed Ms. Jackson on whether the national study should be the EPA's only effort to study the risks of hydraulic fracturing.

"I will not say the national study should be the only study," Ms. Jackson said. But she said the process to develop the current study had been "transparent" and "rigorous."

"I would want my science adviser to understand what additional work is happening so that we're not being redundant," Ms. Jackson said of other studies.

The growing pressure to do more on hydraulic fracturing comes as the EPA faces opposition for a raft of other regulatory initiatives related to industrial pollution, greenhouse gases, coal mining, and other sectors.

Some lawmakers at the hearing Thursday defended natural-gas drillers.

"There's never been a connection proven, in spite of frequent revisiting of the hydraulic-fracturing issue, between the diminution of water quality and modern hydraulic-fracturing techniques," said Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R., Wyo.), echoing the statement of industry supporters.

Ms. Jackson said many of the "issues" identified by Mr. Hinchey stemmed from the agency's regional office in Philadelphia and that she would be travelling there Friday to discuss them.

"There is no 'look the other way' stand-down" on concerns about natural-gas drilling, she said. "We intend to do our jobs."

Write to Ryan Tracy at ryan.tracy@dowjones.com