Panel set to exempt drilling method from regulation

Critics say technique threatens water supplies

April 14, 2005|By Tom Hamburger | Tom Hamburger,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Despite rising complaints that a common oil and gas industry drilling technique threatens drinking water supplies, the House Energy Committee appeared poised yesterday to approve legislation exempting the practice from future regulation under federal drinking water statutes.

The technique, developed by Halliburton Co., involves injecting pressurized fluids deep underground to encourage oil and gas to rise to the surface. For years, Halliburton and other energy firms have been fighting efforts to regulate the practice under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The widely used practice, known as hydraulic fracturing, is generally considered safe. But there has been growing concern as its use has proliferated in coal bed methane fields around the country and in some of the geologically fragile oil and gas repositories of the American West.

On Tuesday, the House Energy Committee rejected Democrats' proposals to modify the exemption. The first proposal, by Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado, would have required a scientific study of the practice before the exemption went into effect. The second, by Rep. Hilda L. Solis of California, would have prohibited the use of diesel fuel in underground injection.

Both amendments were defeated on party line votes in the committee. Republicans rejected the proposals, saying that fracturing is safe and there is no evidence of problems.

Despite such long-standing claims, environmental activists and several landowners presented evidence of problems around the country in a conference call yesterday. That call featured an EPA whistleblower and residents who say that their drinking water and their health have been damaged by the practice.

The whistleblower, Weston Wilson, a 32-year veteran of the environmental agency, says that a recent EPA review of the technique's safety did not use well-established agency standards and relied on a peer review panel that was dominated by energy industry veterans, including some still affiliated with Halliburton. His accusations are under review by the EPA's inspector general.

Fracturing generates $1.5 billion a year for Halliburton, about one-fifth of its energy-related revenue.

In the conference call, Colorado and Alabama residents said that fracturing on their property brought health problems.

Efforts to regulate hydraulic fracturing became an industry concern in the late 1990s, when Vice President Dick Cheney was Halliburton's chief executive officer.

A group of Alabama residents went to court during that period seeking to force regulation of the practice under federal drinking water law. They said their drinking water had been fouled by fracturing fluid used to extract methane from coal beds.

Halliburton argued in a brief in the case that regulation "could have significant adverse affects on its business."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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