Hydraulic Fracturing in the Spotlight

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Getty Images Interior Secretary Ken Salazar suggested Tuesday that he was mulling making gas companies more fully disclose the chemicals they use in the process known as hydraulic fracturing.

 

Hydraulic fracturing — that contentious part of the gas drilling process involving high-pressure injections of water, sand and chemicals deep underground — took center stage on Tuesday with two forums in Washington and a decision by the New York State Legislature to ban the practice until more is known about its health and environmental impacts.

As my colleague Mireya Navarro noted, the New York State Assembly voted on Monday to place a six-month moratorium on issuing new permits for gas drilling that relies on fracking, which opponents fear could lead to contamination of drinking water. The moratorium would encompass virtually all drilling in New York’s portion of the Marcellus shale, a vast and deep deposit of natural gas stretching under several states.

The Assembly’s move follows the state Senate’s approval of a moratorium in August, and the legislation now heads to Gov. David Paterson’s office — although it remains unclear at the moment if he will sign it.

Meanwhile, a pair of panels discussed the ups and downs of shale gas — and the fracking needed to get at it — on Tuesday in Washington.  

At the Heritage Foundation’s Lehrman Auditorium, representatives from the Environmental Defense Fund, the Independent Petroleum Association of America, a trade group, and Southwestern Energy Company, a gas driller with interest in the Marcellus, politely probed one of the most daunting issues in the fracking debate: chemical disclosure.

Although the vast majority of fracking fluid is simply sand and water, drillers and their subcontractors have been notoriously guarded about the precise mixture of chemicals they include to help crack and prop open shale seams in an effort to more economically release the gas. Some companies provide lists of the sorts of chemicals they use, while others appear willing to provide more detailed data to state regulators — but citing trade secrets, not to the general public.

Lee Fuller, the vice president of government relations with the I.P.A.A., even suggested that releasing the information to a populace unschooled in matters of science would only serve to scare them.

“Most people hated chemistry class in school,” he said.

But Scott Anderson, a senior policy adviser with the Environmental Defense Fund, said the natural gas industry stands by those arguments at its peril. He wants the chemicals identified by the number assigned them in the Chemical Abstracts Service.

Short of that, Mr. Anderson argued, no real scientific exploration of whether and how fracking chemicals can migrate into the environment is possible. And short of a rigorous scientific look at the practice, the industry will continue to face backlash.

“In my opinion, nothing good is going to happen for the natural gas industry, in terms of public acceptance or regulation, until the natural gas industry puts behind it this issue about disclosure of frack chemicals,” Mr. Anderson said.

“It’s not that it looks like they are hiding something,” he added, “the industry is hiding something.”

Perhaps not for long. At a forum at the other end of the National Mall, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he was mulling requiring companies to reveal their chemical cocktails.

Scrutiny by the Interior Department comes as the Environmental Protection Agency undertakes its own investigation of fracking, increasing the likelihood that the natural gas industry — unless it can convince officials and the public that it isn’t necessary — could soon face tighter regulations.

Natural gas has a “bright future,” Mr. Salazar said, adding, “The question is how we move forward in a way that we can reassure the American public that what we’re doing is safe and protective of the environment.”

By TOM ZELLER JR./NYT

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