EPA study could slow natural gas exploration in area


July 3, 2010 at 2:03 a.m.

As a tug-of-war rages on between a federal and state agency over regulation of air emissions, another percolates in the ground.

The Environmental Protection Agency will review the drilling technique that has brought unconventional gas into a Renaissance era and, if current production rates hold up, could help supply the U.S. with natural gas power for the next century, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Bruce Vincent, president of Swift Energy Company, is fairly confident the study will reveal that the 60-year-old technology - known as hydraulic fracture, and often "fracking" - does not contaminate groundwater as some have claimed.

But the review may result in the federal government adding a new layer of regulation, which could slow down activity and, ultimately, cost Texas jobs and heighten the cost of living, he said.

"That's ultimately how it plays out," said Vincent, who is based in Houston. "When you cause time delays, you slow down activity and increase cost, you see that in terms of jobs and economic activity. That's exactly where it will manifest itself."

Swift Energy has been operating in the Eagle Ford Shale, the shale rock formation that belts South Texas, since last year. Activity in the Eagle Ford includes Karnes, DeWitt and Lavaca counties.

According to industry experts, the Eagle Ford Shale is one of the newest and most exciting gas plays, what those in the industry call rock formations that hold commercially viable amounts of gas.

The way the gas is extracted from the rock is what's at question here.

Millions of gallons of water, sand and drilling fluids, including some harmful chemicals, are injected into the wells to fracture the rock. Natural gas then flows from the cracks in the rock up into the well.

In 2005, hydraulic fracturing was exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act, which left regulating to be done by the states.

The number of gas wells drilled in Texas increased by 15 percent from 2007 to 2009, according to data from ProPublica, an investigative journalism website. Meanwhile, enforcement staff has remained level.

Vincent said the industry would support further regulation if it was needed.

"But to do it for the sake of doing it, it really takes value from the economy," he said.

So, is the study warranted?

Those in the industry, Vincent included, are up in arms over the broad scope of the EPA study, which will look at the entire production process rather than just the injection of chemicals and drilling fluids, he said.

The main contention from some government bodies and activists is that hydraulic fracturing introduces chemicals into the groundwater, seeping to drinking water sources. The industry says that cement encasing the well protects drinking water.

Previously, New York City placed a ban on natural gas drilling in its entire watershed, which delivers water to nearly 9 million people, because officials feared contamination from drilling chemicals. New gas well production in the state declined from 458 in 2008 to 166 in 2009, according to data from ProPublica.

Filmmaker Josh Fox's documentary "Gasland," an exposé on the natural gas industry and hydraulic fracture, premiered on HBO June 21. The movie incited attention from a national audience already immersed in the environmental mess the BP oil spill has created.

In the film's most talked-about scene, a resident who lives over shale rock being harvested for gas holds a lighter to water pouring from a faucet. After a few seconds, a fireball nearly takes the man's hand.

Energy In Depth, a group that advocates hydraulic fracturing, published a press release debunking the film, pointing to a Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission complaint report which finds that natural occurring methane.

"There are no indications of oil and gas related impacts to water well," the report said.

Travis Windle, a spokesman for Energy In Depth, said the industry hopes the agency's study will arrive to similar conclusions as other studies done on fracking.

"We're hopeful that this study is based on straightforward scientific analysis," he said. "(We hope it) will demonstrate, just as a host of other studies have done in the past, that hydraulic fracturing is safe and that steps are taken at every well site to ensure that groundwater is protected."



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