EPA Statement at Senate Hearing Outlines the Main Arguments Against Drilling

The first witness before the April 12 Senate hearing on natural gas drilling was Robert Perciasepe, Deputy Administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA is currently conducting a multi-year study of the 60 year-old practice of hydraulic fracturing on the basis and claim that it may be harmful to water supplies, and since protection of the nation’s waterways has been assumed by the EPA, hydraulic fracturing (if found to be harmful) would come under the EPA’s jurisdiction and regulation. It is a back door way for the EPA to control natural gas drilling in this country.

The following is a small portion of Mr. Perciasepe’s statement before the hearing. MDN highlights it as an excellent summary of the main arguments that come from those who oppose drilling in the Marcellus Shale and other shale gas plays.

If improperly managed, natural gas extraction and production, including hydraulic fracturing, a technique for extracting natural gas, may potentially result in public health and environmental impacts at any time in the lifecycle of a well and its associated operations. Such impacts may include:

  • stress on surface water and groundwater supplies from the withdrawal of large volumes of water used in drilling and hydraulic fracturing;
  • potential contamination of drinking water aquifers resulting from faulty well construction and completion;
  • compromised water quality due to challenges with managing and disposing of contaminated wastewaters, known as flowback and produced water, where contaminants could include organic chemicals, metals, salts and radionuclides; and
  • impaired air quality from hazardous air pollutants such as benzene and the potent greenhouse gas methane.*

If MDN might be so bold as to make it even more succinct, the main arguments against drilling “if improperly managed” are:

  1. Horizontal hydraulic fracturing uses too much water.
  2. The casing around wells may leak, polluting ground water with nasty chemicals.
  3. The wastewater from drilling pollutes rivers and streams.
  4. Drilling causes air pollution.

Those who support drilling would respond with these counter-arguments:

  1. There are many uses of water that far surpass the volume of water used to drill shale gas wells. Plus, the volume of water used to drill each well goes down each year as the drilling industry recycles more wastewater—in some cases 100 percent of wastewater is recycled. And, water withdrawals are permitted and regulated to prevent overuse from any given location.
  2. Of the over one million wells that have been fractured in the past 60 years, the number of wells with casings that have failed due to poor construction is so small it is statistically zero.
  3. Testing of rivers and streams has shown no elevated levels of radioactivity or “total dissolved solids” that exceed safe limits.
  4. Methane is what comes out of the ground—it is the natural gas itself. To label it as a potent greenhouse gas is inaccurate. Does gas drilling increase the amount of methane in the atmosphere because some it is not captured and escapes? Certainly not enough to move the needle on global warming.

The telling part of Mr. Perciasepe’s statement is the very beginning: “If improperly managed…” His statement implies that if hydraulic fracturing and natural gas extraction are “properly managed” it’s safe. Thank you Mr. Perciasepe! Since we can all agree that it can be properly managed (ie done safely), the debate then focuses on how to properly manage it, and the real purpose of the hearing, who should manage it. MDN maintains, as does Sen. James Inhofe, that the states are the right place to manage it—not the federal government and not the EPA.

*U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works (Apr 12, 2011) – Perciasepe Hearing Statement: Natural Gas Drilling: Public Health and Environmental Impacts