Hinchey wants EPA gas drilling oversight
By Matthew J. Perry
So far, debate over natural gas drilling in the Catskills has swirled between a fixed set of participants: the gas industry, its proponents and opponents, and state and city regulators. But if a new bill passes through congress, the federal government will also have a seat at the table.
Bill 7231, co-authored by Maurice Hinchey, Congress-man of New York’s 22nd district, would give the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversight over hydrofracking wells, which are critical to the gas industry’s plans for tapping the Marcellus Shale, located thousands of feet beneath the Catskills and the rest of the state’s southern tier.
The bill was submitted to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on September 29. It must receive that committee’s approval before it is scheduled for a vote.
Drinking water safety
If successful, 7231 would put teeth back into the 2004 Safe Drinking Water Act that were removed when the Energy Policy Act passed in 2005. That act exempted hydrofracking from EPA regulation, and created an environment in which gas companies have been able to use a variety of chemical cocktails without revealing their ingredients. The Hinchey bill would once again give the EPA the power to learn exactly which chemicals a company uses to create its frack fluid, and in what amounts.
Gas drilling advocates have often cited a 2004 EPA study, which concluded that hydrofracking is not a serious threat to drinking water, as evidence that aggressive oversight of their methods is unnecessary.
Hinchey disagrees, even while recognizing that New York’s regulatory agencies are more powerful than states that have seen significant environmental degradation as a result of hydrofracking. “I understand the desire to expand natural gas development across the country, but we must do so carefully and intelligently,” he stated in a press release. “We must avoid a situation in which a generation or less from now, people shake their heads and wonder how our government could have been so short-sighted and foolish to exempt hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act.”
This viewpoint has been supported by many scientists, including a 31-year veteran of the EPA who contested his agency’s report in a letter he sent to members of congress. He accused the agency of disregarding information that contradicted its arguments. Recently, reports by ProPublica, an independent news organization, have stated that the EPA informed the gas industry of its findings before releasing its report, and buried evidence, which indicates frack fluid can travel underground and potentially threaten nearby water sources.
The gas industry maintains that in New York State, water sources will be safe from injected frack fluid because at the maximum, they are situated a few hundred feet below the surface. The Marcellus Shale, by contrast, is on average 3,400 to 4,000 feet underground. John Holko, a representative of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, last week told the Delaware County Board of Supervisors that 50 to 65 percent of the frack fluid injected into a well will stay below the surface, but that this was not cause for concern. “It’s fine if it stays in the ground thousands of feet below your water sources.”
Brad Gill, another IOGA representative, told the supervisors that the “incidents [of contamination near hydrofracking wells] you hear about are not from New York State.” He did not mention that an extensive DEC review of its gas and oil drilling regulations will prevent widespread construction of hydrofracking wells until at least next year.
Meanwhile, the number of incidents from other states has grown with more thorough investigation into fracking. According to ProPublica, there are more than 1,000 documented cases of water contamination near drilling sites, in at least five states. Leaky transport trucks and wastewater pits are suspected sources of contamination. In other cases, it is thought that the drilling process creates fractures beneath the surface through which harmful gases—such as methane—can travel into water basins or private wells.
The gas industry has consistently argued that there is no conclusive proof that hydrofracking has caused any serious contamination to water, and that mishaps on drilling sites are extremely rare.
Officials at DEC and Delaware River Basin Commission have stated that they will require gas companies to reveal the contents of their frack fluid. Both agencies will monitor water withdrawals and wastewater removal, and each has taken pains to assure the public that they have the means to enforce regulations and keep water sources uncontaminated. Both agencies declined to comment on bill 7231.