By LAURA E. LEE
WASHINGTON (April 13, 2011) Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., on Tuesday called for a change to federal law to allow the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate the natural gas drilling process of hydraulic fracturing or "fracking."
Cardin, chairman of the Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife, and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, held a hearing on Capitol Hill to examine the advantages and challenges of fracking.
"We want to be able to tap into the natural gas reserves of this nation," Cardin said, "and we want to do it in a safe and environmentally sound manner."
Gas companies could use the hydraulic fracturing process to extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formation, which runs under Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, West Virginia and Western Maryland.
The hearing comes just a day after a fracking moratorium compromise in the Maryland Senate failed to make it out of committee. Despite the lack of a formal moratorium, companies cannot use the technique in the state without permits from the Department of the Environment.
Bob Summers, the department's acting secretary, testified that the state has applications from two companies for five wells but no permits have been issued.
"We are proceeding cautiously and deliberately and do not intend to allow drilling and fracking in the Marcellus Shale until the issues are resolved to our satisfaction," Summers said.
In fracking, chemicals are injected into the ground to extract natural gas. After the fluids are used, they may be recycled or injected into underground wells.
"But in some cases, they take it to the wastewater treatment plant that is close by, which, to me, presents significant problems," Cardin said. The chemical pollutants, including chloride, benzene and bromide, may not be adequately removed and could end up contaminating the drinking water supply, he said.
At present, the Safe Drinking Water Act enables the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate underground injections of fluids, but under an exemption commonly called the "Halliburton loophole," the EPA may not monitor fracking unless diesel fuel is involved.
"The Environmental Protection Agency, as we discussed here and is widely known, has been powerless to protect these communities because the Republican Congress, at Vice President Cheney's behest, prohibited EPA from setting standards," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.
EPA Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe testified that the role of the agency is to assist states in devising best practices and guidelines for fracking.
"Our primary role here is oversight on the state programs where they are running the programs, providing guidance where we can, and where we see some imminent danger, we may take our own action on that," Perciasepe said.
But some senators at the hearing pressed for increased federal intervention. "Water doesn't recognize state boundaries," Lautenberg said. Cardin called for "definitive action" by the EPA to avoid dangers to public health.
Summers called on the federal government to take a more active role in regulating fracking. "While the states should retain the authority to enact more stringent requirements," he said, "a federal regulatory 'floor' would ensure at least basic protection of the environment and public health."