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Gone Fishin’ at the St. Regis

EPA hearings consider scope, direction of upcoming HF study – but will the agency follow the guidelines provided by Congress?

This week, EPA’s science advisory board (SAB) will host a series of scoping discussions at the St. Regis hotel in Washington looking into the safety and performance of a critical energy technology known ashydraulic fracturing– essential to natural gas exploration in America today, and a critical tool for leveraging enormous U.S. energy resources into jobs, revenue and opportunity for the American people.

The key question is: What will the board learn from this event? And how might those lessons contribute to the recommendations it will make related to the scope and direction of EPA’s upcoming study on hydraulic fracturing – the second such study it has undertaken in the past six years?

Last year, Congress directed EPA to pursue a very specific objective. Specifically, it asked the agency “to carry out a study on the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water” – language that was included in the Interior appropriations bill for fiscal year 2010. Will EPA abide by this stricture? Or will it seek to use its upcoming fracturing study as a means of targeting aspects of the energy exploration process that fall well outside the defined parameters set before it by Congress?

That, fundamentally, is the question being asked of the SAB today by supporters of responsible natural gas development. Here’s how EID executive director Lee Fuller framed the issue at the hearing:

We believe that the study needs to be framed around a key threshold question – whether the regulatory structures effectively manage the environmental risks of the fracturing process. If these risks are well managed, the other questions are meaningless. If the regulatory structures prevent pathways to drinking water, there is no risk.

Seems like a logical proposition to us. The only problem? In a series of proposed scoping questionsreleased by EPA last month, the agency seemed to go out of its way to include things in its document that have nothing to do with the question at hand – which, remember, is the “relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water.” Take a look at the initial EPA scoping documents yourself. Here are a few of the things that jump out to us:

The potential exposure pathways to be addressed by this study include ingestion, inhalation, dermal exposure through water, air, food, and environmental exposures.

What are the socioeconomic considerations that communities bring to perceptions of environmental impacts?

What is the potential to contribute to the spread of invasive or non-native species associated with HF activity?

What community health and environmental justice issues may be associated with HF activities?

Guess we must have missed the line in Congress’s Interior appropriations bill about “invasive species” and “air exposure.” But kidding aside, the real concern being expressed by natural gas producers in the meeting today is a simple one: If EPA has limited funds for this study, and a timeline of about two years to complete it, isn’t it possible that launching an open-ended fishing expedition might take time and resources away that EPA can and should be using to answer the questions posed to it by Congress? That’s what API senior policy advisor Stephanie Meadows wants to know:

In addition to having the appropriate expertise involved in this study, we believe that this planned study can best achieve its primary objective in a timely manner, by ensuring that the scope of this study is clearly focused on issues directly related to hydraulic fracturing as was put forth in the charge from Congress and does not become sidetracked by trying to examine broader industry issues at the same time.

It’s not only industry that’s asking these basic questions. The Ground Water Protection Council (GWPC), a group of state groundwater regulators that’s considered “one of the nation’s leading groundwater protection organizations,” seems to have similar concerns over the seemingly random course of study openly being contemplated by EPA. Here’s just a snippet from the comments submitted today by GWPC executive director Mike Paque:

With regard to the proposed scope of the study we have concerns about the breadth of the effort. The scoping document appears to cover areas of oil and gas exploration and production activity that are essentially unrelated to the practice of hydraulic fracturing … Consequently, we believe narrowing the scope of the study to field practices directly related to hydraulic fracturing would result in a more focused and, ultimately, more effective study.

Naturally, for those with an ideological aversion to responsible energy development in America, the prospect of an open-ended, EPA-led inquisition of oil and gas production seems to suit them just fine. Heck, some are even using this week’s scoping hearing as an opportunity to sell their wares. These comments were submitted by filmmaker Debra Anderson, who released a documentary in 2009 calling on Congress to pass the anti-energy FRAC Act:

I notice that you are collecting information for [your] Hydraulic Fracturing Review. I am a filmmaker and we have just released a film on the environmental and social effects of natural gas and oil drilling. … Hydraulic Fracturing is a topic that is featured in the film. … For more information about the film go to www.splitestate.com. The committee can contact me at info@splitestate.com if they would like to request a copy for review.

For what it’s worth, part of our job here at EID is to sit through (and even occasionally watch) one-sided, fact-deficient films like Split Estate so you don’t have to. And then issue detailed rebuttals in response (you can find ours here).

It’s also our job to keep you updated on what goes down on at the St. Regis. Toward that end, earlier today, EID live-blogged a portion of the scoping hearing via our Twitter page. We’ll be updating the site as more information comes our way. Until then, happy scoping.

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