House Lawmakers Oppose Premature Fracking Rules

Published February 7, 2011

Fearing the Obama administration is planning to restrict natural gas production through hydraulic fracturing on federal lands, a bipartisan group of 32 House lawmakers from natural-gas-producing states is calling on Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to forego issuing any new rules on the procedure until the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has completed its analysis of the technique.

EPA is due to issue its findings in 2012.

Avoid Hasty Action
In a January 5 letter to Salazar, the congressmen—27 Republicans and 5 Democrats—warned, “hastily proposed regulatory burdens on natural gas will increase energy costs for consumers, suppress job creation in a promising energy sector, and hinder our nation’s ability to become more energy independent.”

The lawmakers are all members of the Congressional Natural Gas Caucus. Their letter is in response to reports the Interior Department is considering imposing new fracking regulations on federal lands. In its FY 2010 budget report, the House Appropriations Conference Committee instructed EPA to conduct a study on the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as fracking.

Fracking is a procedure in which drillers use high-volume water, sand, and trace amounts of chemicals to release underground deposits of natural gas. Hydraulic fracking, coupled with horizontal drilling, has made it possible to extract natural gas at a much lower cost than was possible only a few years ago.

“We also would note that the vast majority of scientific evidence shows hydraulic fracturing to be safe, less resource-intensive for the environment than traditional methods, and properly managed and regulated at the state level,” the lawmakers pointed out.  The lead signers on the letter were the co-chairs of the Congressional Natural Gas Caucus: Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA.) and Rep. Dan Boren (D-OK). At press time, Secretary Salazar had not yet responded to the letter.

Dramatic Energy Potential
Geologists have known about huge deposits of natural gas tucked away in U.S. shale formations for years, but until the advent of high-volume hydraulic fracking and horizontal drilling, recovering these natural gas deposits was uneconomical. Now, shale formations in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and in the Marcellus Shale (primarily Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, Ohio, and Michigan) are showing promise of revitalizing the nation’s energy production. 

The prospect that an abundant and affordable fossil fuel could overshadow the Obama administration’s efforts to promote renewable energy, primarily wind and solar, has set off alarms among environmental activist groups. The Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and several smaller regional organizations claim, among other things, that fracking poses a threat to the nation’s water supply.  

Hollywood has even gotten into the act. The anti-natural-gas film Gasland uses sensationalism to demonstrate what its director, Josh Fox, says are the perils of natural gas. “It’s all about drawing more attention to the problem and the families who’ve been hurt by drilling.” Fox told the Times Herald-Record, which serves parts of Pennsylvania and New York (New York Times, Jan. 25, 2011). The Times, however, noted “fracking has vastly expanded the nation’s gas reserves and brought prosperity and jobs to some depressed areas.”

Attacking Energy Production
Members of the Congressional Natural Gas Caucus may have good reason to feel apprehensive about Salazar’s Interior Department. Salazar has drastically reduced the number of leases for oil and gas drilling on federal land in Utah, and he recently unveiled a “Wild Lands” initiative that will create de facto wilderness areas on resource-rich federal land throughout the West.

“The administration is advancing a no-energy policy, one resource at a time: No drilling offshore, no mining of coal, no development of natural gas—all of which means no electricity generation and no American manufacturing jobs,” said Rep. Murphy. “If Secretary Salazar moves forward with new regulations without the benefit of scientifically based research, it would needlessly restrict domestic natural gas production at a time when the country needs it more than ever.

“Toward that end,” Rep. Murphy explained, “the Congressional Natural Gas Caucus is urging completion of the EPA scientific review before issuing guidelines for drilling on public lands so that we don’t sacrifice the benefit of natural gas development without a clear command of the facts.”

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C.