Democrats send letters to firms seeking answers on controversial drilling method

Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.) today moved a step closer to starting a big fight with the natural gas industry over a controversial drilling technique behind a sharp rise in natural gas supplies.

The two Democrats sent letters to CEOs of 8 companies asking that they list chemicals used in a hydraulic fracturing, a drilling technique that injects fluids and sand underground to break-up rock formations so that natural gas can escape to the surface. "Fracking" has given producers access to rich gas reserves stuck in shale rock. Critics say the practice poses several environmental risks.

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The letters may signal something the industry has dreaded: a push by congressional Democrats to bring fracking under federal clean water laws. Drillers say new federal regulations would delay production of a “clean energy” fuel source that also provides a jolt to the economy. (Here is a link to the letters and an accompanying memo explaining the inquiry.)

Regulated through state anti-pollution laws, fracking has been used for years. The practice has become more prevalent, however, in recent years in densely populated areas like New York and Pennsylvania, which sit atop huge shale gas reserves accessed with the technique.

Environmental and community groups fear fracking contaminates drinking water supplies. How the fluids are disposed of is another concern.

Drilling companies insist fracking is safe. Energy In Depth, an industry-backed group formed specifically to fight federal regulations, said hydraulic fracturing is an “essential component of producing clean-burning energy in America today” in response to the inquiry.

“If the responsible development of shale gas represents a potential game-changer for the United States, hydraulic fracturing represents a non-negotiable tool needed to leverage that potential into reality – and the jobs, revenue and opportunity that come with it,” the group said.

The mild tone of memo and the letters to the CEOs, along with that of the industry’s response, belie the potential controversy a push to regulate fracking could create.

Waxman and Markey's memo, written to members of Markey's House energy and environment subcommittee, praised the newfound natural gas reserves. New drilling techniques are “one of the most promising trends in U.S. energy supplies,” according to the memo. Waxman is the chairman of the full Energy and Commerce Committee.

“Proven domestic reserves of natural gas have expanded exponentially in recent years,” Waxman and Markey note.

Industry said it welcomed providing more information to Congress.

But any effort to increase federal regulation in the practice would likely set off a fierce fight between producers and congressional Democrats. Exxon Mobil has already warned more federal regulations could make it think twice about a $40 billion acquisition of XTO Energy, which has large natural gas reserves.

Fracking largely occurs outside the jurisdiction of federal regulators. The industry contends state laws are sufficient to prevent pollution problems.

Under a memorandum of understanding in 2003, three main practitioners agreed not to use diesel fuel when fracking. But Waxman and Markey note that an inquiry into the practice last Congress found that drillers had violated the terms of the MOU, and possibly the Safe Drinking Water Act.

“Hydraulic fracturing and other new technologies for unlocking unconventional natural gas supplies have tremendous potential,” a memo from Waxman and Markey states.

“But as the use of these technologies expands, there needs to be oversight to ensure that their use does not threaten the public health of nearby communities.”