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House Panel Studies Hydraulic Fracturing

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A House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee held a hearing this week to explore the use of hydraulic fracturing to recover oil and natural gas from formations deep underground and to examine the methods in which states are regulating the practice.

The Water Resources and Environment subcommittee heard from the Environmental Protection Agency and state and local agency representatives on the use of fracturing, called “fracking,” and state regulations over gas production and disposal of the wastes.

In a statement, Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-OH), chair of the subcommittee, explained the members’ interest: 

“Natural gas production from shale formations has grown as a result of advances in drilling technologies and greater use of the technique of hydraulic fracturing,” Gibbs said.  “It has developed from a negligible amount just a few years ago to almost 15 percent of total U.S. natural gas production and is expected to triple in the coming decades. The newly extractable shale gas resources have changed the U.S. natural gas position from net importer to potentially a net exporter.”

Rep. Timothy Bishop (D-NY), ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, said Congress should be concerned more about the management of fracking wastes than the actual drilling practices.  “From my perspective, today’s hearing should focus on the important questions of what to do with the chemicals and other fracking by-products once they cease to be of value for natural gas production and need to be disposed of,” he said.

According to EPA, fluids composed of water and chemical additives are pumped into a geologic formation at high pressure during hydraulic fracturing.  When the pressure exceeds the rock strength, the fluids open or enlarge fractures that can extend several hundred feet away from the well.  After the fractures are created, a propping agent is pumped into the fractures to keep them from closing when the pumping pressure is released.  After fracturing is completed, the internal pressure of the geologic formation cause the injected fracturing fluids to rise to the surface where it may be stored in tanks or pits prior to disposal or recycling.

Most drilling wastes are recycled, re-injected at the well sites under the Safe Drinking Water Act’s underground injection control rules, or sent to publicly owned treatment works for disposal.

In October, EPA announced that it has begun a study of industry waste-management practices to determine whether there needs to be a uniform national standard for pollutant concentrations for wastes that are disposed of.  Once all scientific studies are completed, the agency could begin a rulemaking as early as 2014.

“While this increase in [energy] resources is beneficial, it is important that it be conducted in a way that ensures protection of [underground] drinking-water supplies and water quality as well as adequate availability of waste disposal,” said Jim Hanlon, director of the EPA’s Office of Wastewater Management.

ASCE does not have a policy at present supporting or opposing fracking as a gas recovery method.  ASCE supports strict compliance with federal and state water-quality standards for wastewater discharged from POTWs.

The complete hearing material is available on the Committee's website.

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