New rules on gas drilling?

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By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — Gas drilling issues dominated Thursday’s Planning Committee meeting of the County Legislature.
Planning Commissioner Bill Pammer asked and got legislators to approve a resolution recommending the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) prohibit extracting gas in 100-year and 500-year floodplains.
“This recommendation is made for the purpose of protecting life and property within these areas and… safeguarding the health of the river basin and of the communities who use it from adverse environmental effects on water resources resulting from this activity,” read the resolution.
“We’re talking about a very, very small land area,” Pammer said – mostly around the Delaware River and its major tributaries.
He passed around a list of some of the affected towns. Delaware and Callicoon had the least amount of floodplain areas (two percent), while Lumberland had the most (8.6 percent).
Another resolution, again approved unanimously by committee members, requested the State Legislature to authorize local governments to demand financial security and indemnification pertaining to road damage from trucks hauling materials to and from drill sites.
Though the state already gives local governments latitude in determining such payments, they have been challenged in court.
Plus, this resolution asks the state to clarify that such requirements do not constitute “impact” fees, leaving room for municipalities to charge that separately (as is the case with the proposed Indian casinos).
And, of course, the county sent another resolution to the state asking it to give local governments the same oversight they normally have with any other kind of development within their borders. Currently, municipalities only have control over local roads and taxes.
However, Pammer may have found a way for the county to at least get a glimpse of the site plan – through the requirement that each wellpad have a 911 address for emergency response procedures.
Driveways on county roads require permits from the county, and while the county can’t demand alterations to the site plan, it can require the plan’s submission to gain the permit.
Legislator Leni Binder said she’d favor such a requirement as long as it didn’t present “an undue burden of expense” on the applicant, which Pammer promised it would not.
In fact, Division of Public Works Commissioner Bob Meyer said it would only be a “step above” the sketch already required for a permit.
Pammer said he’d research the issue more before presenting it to legislators for a vote.
Also being researched is the development of a local law to prohibit seismic testing on county roads.
“Thumper trucks,” as they are known, have visited the county before, searching for solid and liquid minerals underneath the ground by sending sound vibrations through the soil and rock.
The concern of the county, however, isn’t so much the noise but the extraction of data from below private property, as the seismic tests measure information gathered from an area larger than just underneath the truck itself.
Legislator Ron Hiatt was the only one hesitant to endorse such a law, but Pammer said he’d do more investigating before bringing it back to the Legislature – including getting townships to sign on to such an initiative to ensure town roads are treated in the same manner as county routes.

Bills Would Require Disclosure of “Fracking” Chemicals

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Bills recently introduced in both the House and Senate seek to force natural gas drilling companies to disclose what chemicals are pumped into the ground in a practice known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Although the process has been linked to drinking water contamination and other harms to public health and the environment, companies are currently allowed to conceal the toxic chemicals they use.

Hydraulic fracturing is a process where sand and fluids are pumped underground at very high pressure to cause tiny fissures in rock and force natural gas to the surface. Although most of the fluid is water, numerous chemicals, many of them toxic, are typically added to the mixture. Fracking fluid is known to often contain benzene, toluene, and pesticides, among other harmful substances.

Currently, the industry enjoys an exemption from regulation under a federal drinking water statute that permits them to maintain secrecy around the chemicals used. Gas drillers and the companies that supply them are attempting to fend off Congress’ efforts to close the loophole and to preserve the confidentiality of the chemicals used, claiming the mixtures are trade secrets. Without the information about the chemicals, scientists are unable to research the potential health effects of hydraulic fracturing.

The legislation, known as the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act, or FRAC Act, specifies that drillers must disclose the identities of the chemicals used in the fracturing fluids. In medical emergencies, even trade secrets must be disclosed, with or without a written statement of need. The Senate version of the bill is sponsored by Pennsylvania Sen. Robert Casey, Jr. (D) and New York’s Charles Schumer (D).

According to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), whose Energy and Commerce Committee is moving the House bill (H.R. 2766), “The current exemption for the oil and gas industry means that we can’t even get the information necessary to evaluate the health threats from these practices.”

The bills remove the oil and gas industry’s exemption from regulation under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), which was granted in a previous, Republican-controlled Congress. The SDWA authorizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate the injection of fluids underground and limits pollution levels in drinking water. The exemption, known as the “Halliburton loophole” for the company that pioneered the process and the influence of its former CEO, Dick Cheney, was inserted into the Energy Policy Act of 2005. No other industry enjoys such a blanket exemption from SDWA regulation. Without the authority of the SDWA, EPA scientists are powerless to analyze the chemicals, processes, and dangers of hydraulic fracturing.

Chemicals used in fracking enter the environment through three main ways. Up to one-third of the fracking fluid is left underground during the process, and this can seep into underground drinking water supplies and the source waters for rivers and lakes. Spills and accidents on the surface can also contaminate water supplies. Finally, the two-thirds of the fluid that is retrieved after being injected underground is waste water that must be disposed, presenting another potential avenue for release into the environment.

Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), one of the House bill’s cosponsors, said, “It’s time to fix an unfortunate chapter in the Bush administration’s energy policy and close the ‘Halliburton loophole’ that has enabled energy companies to pump enormous amounts of toxins, such as benzene and toluene, into the ground that then jeopardize the quality of our drinking water.” Hinchey added, “The bill also lifts the veil of secrecy currently shrouding this industry practice.”

Another House cosponsor, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), announced, “When it comes to protecting the public’s health, it’s not unreasonable to require these companies to disclose the chemicals they are using in our communities – especially near our water sources.”

In DeGette’s home state, Colorado, gas drilling has greatly expanded over the last eight years, and nine Colorado municipalities have already passed resolutions similar to the proposed federal legislation. New state rules in Colorado require gas drillers to give the inventory of chemicals to medical personnel when requested, as well as to state officials. The general public remains barred from access to the information, however.

The federal bills do not require reporting of quantities of fracking fluids used, the amounts of the toxic chemicals used or disposed of, or where the chemicals end up. However, with knowledge of the chemicals themselves and the authority to regulate the process, EPA scientists would be able to track the fate of the fracking fluids and analyze impacts to the environment.

In cases of medical emergencies caused by exposure to fracking chemicals, the legislation gives companies that were forced to disclose proprietary chemical formulas the right to require a confidentiality agreement from the treating nurse or doctor after the emergency. However, it is not clear if the patient must sign a confidentiality agreement, or if the physician is barred from telling the patient what chemicals they have been exposed to. The legislation’s focus on medical emergencies fails to consider or address chronic exposure to fracking chemicals, which could create non-emergency medical situations where disclosure of the chemicals is important.

The industry contends that oil and gas production would drop considerably – threatening the economy and the country’s goal of energy independence – if the legislation becomes law. This argument is made despite industry assertions that the value of the natural gas in just one geologic formation in the northeast would be worth up to one trillion dollars. Opponents of federal regulation also claim that state regulators provide sufficient oversight of fracking operations.

( 06/16/09)

DeGette plans to introduce ‘fracking’ bill this week to protect drinking water from gas drilling

This article was originally published in the Colorado Independent and can be found at the following address:

By David O. Williams 6/8/09 8:54 AM

(Photo/Malia_Mia, Flickr)(Photo/Malia_Mia, Flickr)

Officials for the natural gas industry are quick to point out that a process called hydraulic fracturing has been in use for more than 60 years without a single documented case of groundwater contamination by the chemicals used to make gas flow more freely from wells.But U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette is just as quick to respond that it’s hard to document contamination when no one outside of the industry knows exactly what kinds of chemicals are being injected along with high-pressure water into wells to force open rock formations thousands of feet below the surface.

On a recent conference call with reporters to discuss a hydraulic fracturing — or “fracking” — bill she plans to introduce this week, DeGette, a Democrat from Denver, said most of the evidence of well-water contamination or groundwater spills is anecdotal because state and local officials don’t know what chemicals are being used.

DeGette cited the case of an emergency room nurse in Grand Junction who suffered organ failure last year after treating a natural gas worker who was coated with fracking fluids.

“She believes and many other people believe that her injuries came from chemicals that were included in the fracking fluid, but the problem is that since the companies don’t have to disclose the chemicals that are in that fracking fluid, it’s difficult to make a correlation,” DeGette said.

In a statement, DeGette and U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey, a Democrat from New York, a co-sponsor of the pending legislation, point to “troubling incidents around the country” in which people living near drilling operations have fallen ill. The lawmakers say chemicals known to be used in the process include “diesel fuel, benzene, industrial solvents and other carcinogens and endocrine disrupters.”

Industry officials argue the process is already regulated by state agencies and that the types of chemicals being used are trade secrets that can give them a production edge over competitors. They say the exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act granted during the Bush administration in 2005 is needed to protect desperately needed domestic energy-sector jobs.

“[Fracking’s] got an exemplary safety record and it’s vital to ensuring an American energy source,” said Kathleen Sgamma, director of government affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States (IPAMS). “Keep in mind that it has been regulated by the states for the last 60 years.”

Sgamma said fracking uses 99.5 percent water and sand, with the remaining percentage comprised of chemicals such as food additives, food-worthy thickeners, chlorine, bacteriasides and emulsions to thicken the mixture.

But the word of the industry isn’t good enough for Hinchey, whose district in New York’s Catskill Mountains has been the focus of stepped-up drilling activity in recent years. He said he’s heard from property owners around the country who have experienced water problems resulting from natural gas drilling.

“What we’re trying to do is restore a safe, solid, secure piece of legislation passed back in 1974 [the Safe Drinking Water Act], which had a positive effect and should be put back in place for the obvious reasons — to protect the security and safety of people across the country, to make sure their wells aren’t contaminated,” Hinchey said.

Just across the border in northeastern Pennsylvania, Carolyn Wells, who lives part time near the town of Dimock, said natural gas drilling in the mostly rural area is destroying her formerly peaceful escape from her primary residence in New York City.

“People started leasing their land like crazy during the past two years, without reading the fine print or doing any research on what it means. All they see is dollar signs that they think they will get,” Wells said, counting at least 20 neighbors whose drinking water wells are contaminated with fracking fluids. “I can’t believe people will sacrifice clean air and water for money. Doesn’t do too much good if your environment is toxic or you get cancer.”

But in Colorado, a spokeswoman for Williams, an energy company with one of the better environmental reputations on the Western Slope, discounts the notion that drinking water is being fouled by fracking fluids anywhere in the country.

“Hydraulic fracturing is really misunderstood and it’s really been misrepresented,” said Susan Alvillar, community affairs representative for Williams. “It’s such a necessary part of our business, but unless you’ve got processed water in a truck that spills into a drinking water source or a stream, hydraulic fracturing 8,000 feet underneath the ground is not going to commingle those fluids and gas with drinking water.”

In Colorado, Alvillar said, the state is more than capable of monitoring and regulating the process. IPAM’s Sgamma, who admitted there are occasional incidents, agreed: “Accidents happen, and companies are liable if they make a mistake, and they pay fines or rectify the situation.”

But DeGette made the case that the quality of water flowing from Colorado’s Western Slope impacts states like Utah, Wyoming, Arizona and New Mexico, making federal oversight even more important. And she pointed out that not all states have the tougher new drilling regulations Colorado recently adopted.

“I must say I’m very proud of my home state of Colorado for passing these new stringent regulations, but all the states have not passed regulations that are the same,” DeGette said. “And the reason we passed the Safe Drinking Water Act in the first place is that we decided that safe drinking water is a national priority and that the standards should apply to everybody.”

DeGette called the jobs argument a scare campaign because her bill won’t add undue industry expense and contains provisions to allow for proprietary confidentiality when it comes to detailing the types and percentages of fracking fluids being used.

“I’ve been hearing hyperbole like this is going to put millions of people out of jobs and so on,” DeGette said. “I don’t know if the oil and gas companies don’t understand the bill or if they’re intentionally misrepresenting the bill, so I think there is an educational campaign to be made to members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.”

Williams’s Alvillar, though, said Colorado’s new, environmentally tougher drilling regulations are in part to blame for the recent decline in drilling activity on the Western Slope, and another layer of federal regulation certainly won’t help the industry.

“I do know, from reading other media accounts, that it is impacting our contract workforce,” Alvillar said of the regulations. “We don’t have as much work for them to do. People, for instance, like Halliburton, who are running our well service, I know it’s impacted their workforce.”

The war of words over water is nothing new for Colorado.

Other industry watchers attribute the downturn in natural gas drilling on the Western Slope on the larger effects of the global economic crisis that caused oil and gas commodity prices to drop substantially.

Hinchey pushes for disclosure of chemicals used in natural gas ‘fracking’

Hinchey pushes for disclosure of chemicals used in natural gas ‘fracking’

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WASHINGTON – With interest in drilling for natural gas deposits in Marcellus shale formations in Sullivan and Delaware counties and elsewhere in the Catskills and Southern Tier, New York Rep. Maurice Hinchey Thursday said he would introduce legislature calling for disclosure of the chemicals used in the process.

Hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, is a process of injecting at high pressure chemicals into underground rock formations in order to release natural gas to be captured.

Hinchey and Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette are pushing for disclosure of those chemicals, which they said could include diesel fuel, benzene, industrial solvents and other carcinogens and endocrine disruptors.

DeGette said she supports natural gas drilling, but with safeguards. “I don’t think we should be developing those resources at the potential risk to the public, especially to the risk of their drinking water,” she said. “That’s why I think it’s important that we balance the need for energy development with the need for sensible environmental laws.”

Hinchey, too, wants safeguards in place when drilling and fracking. “To make sure that their wells are not contaminated; to make sure that their water reservoirs are not contaminated and that water continues to be safe and secure.”

Both lawmakers testified before a hearing of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources Thursday.