Sunday, May 01, 2005

Clean Water at Risk in Energy Bill

Lost amidst the debate over the Bush energy bill is a barely noticed provision that exempts a process called hydraulic fracturing from federal regulation. [1] Though bi-partisan citizen groups across the country are urging that the procedure be regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, a Congressional committee approved a provision that allows the procedure to remain only under state regulation.

Hydraulic fracturing eases the extraction of fossil fuels by injecting pressurized fluids and chemicals beneath the earth's surface in order to crack open rock formations and access oil and natural gas trapped in them. The problem is that chemicals used in the process can contaminate ground water, posing serious health problems.

The technique was developed by Halliburton Oil, whose former CEO, Vice President Dick Cheney, has consistently backed measures to allow continued use of the technique. Halliburton and two other companies are leaders in the use of this method of drilling. Halliburton makes $1.5 billion a year from fracturing -- one-fifth of its energy-related revenue. [2]

To support their claims that hydraulic fracturing should not be regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, industry officials cite an EPA study that says fracturing in coal bed methane wells "poses little or no threat" to drinking water. [3]

But Wes Wilson, a Colorado-based EPA administrator, points out that a recent EPA review of hydraulic fracturing relied on a panel led primarily by energy industry personnel, including a current Halliburton employee.

The Colorado-based Oil and Gas Accountability Project (OGAP) recently completed a report that cites several problems with hydraulic fracturing and EPA-led studies. According to OGAP, the EPA study fails to provide "adequate scientific proof that hydraulic fracturing does not pose a threat to drinking water."

The OGAP report points out that while the EPA says hydraulic fracturing poses no threat to drinking water, it also says that chemicals regularly used in the procedure are linked to human health effects. Among them are cancer, liver, kidney, brain, respiratory and skin disorders; birth defects; and other health problems. [4] Lisa Sumi, research director of OGAP, points out that "the EPA had information showing that numerous chemicals are injected at concentrations that threaten human health, but they chose to leave that information out of their study." [5]

[1] "States May Retain Oversight of Process in Gas Oil Fields," Associated Press, Apr. 18, 2005.
[2] "Halliburton's Interests Assisted by White House," Los Angeles Times, Oct. 14, 2004.
[3] "House Panel Deregulates Drilling Technique," Los Angeles Times, Apr. 13, 2005.
[4] "Our Drinking Water At Risk," Oil and Gas Accountability project report, Apr. 2005.
[5] Earthworks press release, Apr. 13, 2005.

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