New legislation to protect drinking water from oil and gas contamination

U.S. Representatives Diana DeGette (D-CO), Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), and John Salazar (D-CO) recently introduced legislation that would subject the practice of hydraulic fracturing to the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).*

I applaud these Members of Congress for sponsoring this bill.  I expect the industry response to include claims that: (a) there is no need for regulation; (b) there is no one-size-fits-all solution; and (c) regulation under SDWA would be too great an economic burden.  Under this legislation, however, hydraulic fracturing could be regulated under a flexible provision that allows states to establish their own programs-which must be an effective program to prevent the endangerment of drinking water sources.  This is a critical step to ensure a minimum standard across the nation and one we don't think will cause an unreasonable burden.

Due to the slow movement of groundwater, contaminated underground sources of drinking water can take hundreds of years to become clean.  While there are claims that hydraulic fracturing has never contaminated drinking water, there is anecdotal evidence of contamination from several states.  Just this summer, in Gibbs Hill, Pennsylvania, local residents reported that water from their water well caused burning in mouths and lungs after a nearby natural gas well had been "fracced." This incident is still being investigated.  One of the reasons we don't have better information on the risks of hydraulic fracturing is because a 2004 study on this topic by the Environmental Protection Agency omitted important information and considerations.

Many states already regulate other oil and gas activities under this same law, including "enhanced recovery" of oil and gas, which involves the underground injection of water, CO2, or chemicals into wells to increase pressure (although it does not involve fracturing), and underground injection of oil and gas waste.  And non-toxic fraccing fluids are available and have been shown extremely effective by industry research.

I'd like to end this post by quoting geologist Geoffrey Thyne, the director of the University of Wyoming's Enhanced Oil Recovery Institute. He was interviewed for an OnEarth article on this topic two years ago after he conducted an analysis of contaminated water in western Colorado.

"Can we design a gas field that's 100 percent safe? No," says Geoffrey Thyne. "The question is, how far do we go in making it safe?........Wouldn't it be great to get ahead of this problem?" Thyne asks. "What if the industry said, 'You know what, even if there's a one-in-a-million chance of something like this happening, we'll go green. We'll make sure there's nothing in the frac'ing fluid that could ever cause health problems.'"

*To learn more about hydraulic fracturing, see pages 14-18 of the NRDC report Drilling Down.