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Guest Blog: ‘This study will take a while’ – and with questionable personnel

Andrew Browning is a vice president at Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA), and is writing on behalf of CEA’s Natural Gas Committee.

Last week, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson sat before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works to address issues concerning public drinking water. Included in this discussion was a brief exchange between Jackson and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) on the topic of hydraulic fracturing.  When asked by Sen. Inhofe to update the committee on any investigations the EPA was pursuing on the topic, Jackson replied:

“On hydraulic fracturing, we are about to round up our work plan, which has gone through peer review and public comment. We expect in the next month or two to have the work plan for our study finished. … [Fracturing] is not an unregulated activity. Many localities, many states regulate aspects of the drilling process. … And states are different, geology is different, the number of people and population density are different. But there may be a need for a federal role, we simply don’t know. And this study will take a while.”

On a number of occasions, my organization Consumer Energy Alliance, along with many others in the energy community (including that which is providing us this blog space) have stated that while we find EPA’s study to be slightly redundant – considering study after study has been conducted with no sign of water contamination due to hydraulic fracturing – it is welcomed if it means that sound science will be used in the appropriate manner to ensure members of well-site communities that their water is safe.

While CEA is confident that EPA can and will conduct a fair evaluation of this drilling technology, we are hesitant to fully support EPA’s efforts following the announcement last month of those experts who will carry out the study. The board, officially known as the Hydraulic Fracturing Study Plan Review Panel, is made up of 23 members, all but four of whom come from a research or academic organization, and none of which hail from an oil and gas company.  CEA has commented extensively on the proposed direction of  the Draft Science Advisory Report that was developed to guide the EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD) in their Hydraulic Fracturing Study.  In our previous comments, we advised EPA to draw extensively from industry experts within the field and with “hands on” experience, and also from state officials who have successfully regulated hydraulic fracturing and natural gas production for decades.

Having a strong academic presence on such a panel is understandable and necessary – academics and researchers fill the role of a third-party appropriately. However, CEA believes that a panel made up of over 80 percent academics is unbalanced, especially when so much is at stake. Even if some of these panelists had hands-on experience in the industry prior to taking up their current roles, technology used in the oil and gas industry tends to change rapidly, and only those who are knees deep in the field now – as opposed to five or ten years ago – will be able to accurately counterbalance findings and techniques from the academic community.

In evaluating the regulatory environment post-Macondo, those of us working with the oil and gas industry understand the need to maintain a regulatory environment that has a clear division between regulator and industry personnel. But we also recognize that those in the business have a great deal of technical expertise , and it is in the best interest of a study such as this to have that experience available to share information about what has been found to be true over the past several decades: hydraulic fracturing practices are safe and well-regulated, and do not pose a threat to drinking water.

CEA and its 160 member companies representing all facets of the U.S. economy look forward to seeing the results of the EPA findings, but we urge EPA and the Obama Administration to seek comments and guidance straight from the industry and those who have had extensive past regulatory experience to ensure that the study is as accurate and fair as possible.

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