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The House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, chaired by Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-OH), held a hearing on November 16 to consider potential new regulations by EPA on the hydraulic fracturing of shale beds to produce natural gas.  Opening remarks by Chairman Gibbs and other members of the Committee emphasized the importance of developing this natural gas resource to provide both jobs and domestic energy sources.  While recognizing that protecting the environment was a concern, the majority Members wanted to discuss whether EPA was considering unnecessary Federal regulation under the Clean Water Act that would go beyond what States are already doing to develop shale gas and protect the environment.

 Jim Hanlon, Director, Office of Wastewater Management, started by recognizing that natural gas plays a key role in our nation’s clean energy future and that EPA is committed to ensuring that we pursue this vital resource responsibly.  Mr. Hanlon then presented recently announced EPA activities. 

 Specifically, at the request of Congress via the FY2010 appropriations conference report, EPA’s research office is conducting a study to better understand potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources.  EPA has held a series of public meetings across the nation to receive input from states, industry, environmental and public health groups, and individual citizens. In addition, the study was reviewed by the Science Advisory Board (SAB), an independent panel of scientists, to ensure the agency conducted the research using a scientifically sound approach. The initial research results and study findings will be released to the public in 2012. The final report will be delivered in 2014.  The study is looking at the full cycle of water in hydraulic fracturing, from the acquisition of the water, through the mixing of chemicals and actual fracturing, to the post-fracturing stage, including the management of flowback and produced or used water as well as its ultimate treatment and disposal.

 Also, Mr. Hanlon noted that EPA had recently announced that it was beginning a rulemaking process to set technology-based treatment pre-treatment standards to regulate discharges to publicly owned treatment works (POTWs) produced by natural gas extraction from underground shale formations.  In particular, process water from shale gas extraction contains high levels of salts and other materials that must be pretreated before discharge to POTWs.  Mr. Hanlon stressed that this rulemaking process will be informed by the input of industry experts, states, and public health organizations and will ensure that energy needs are met safely and responsibly.  A rule would be proposed no earlier than 2014.  And, if finalized after that, would be implemented by States and local POTWs.  Mr. Hanlon emphasized that under the Clean Water Act, States and local utilities have the lead on the pretreatment program.

 State witnesses representing Pennsylvania and Oklahoma regulatory agencies discussed how they already regulate shale gas development including their approaches for protecting surface and ground waters.  To date in both States, there have been no documented drinking water problems resulting from shale gas extraction.  They stressed that States must have the lead and that EPA should not require them to do more than they are now.  Follow-up questioning by Committee members emphasized the critical importance of having States take the lead in regulating shale gas development including environmental protection. 

 In closing, Chairman Gibbs noted that his intent in holding the hearing was to encourage States and EPA to work collaboratively so that shale gas can continue to be developed, avoiding duplication and allowing States to lead. To view a complete list of witnesses, written testimonies, and a video of the entire hearing, click here