Lawmakers air frustration over federal attention to shale - Business, Government Legal News from throughout WV

Lawmakers air frustration over federal attention to shale

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Frustration over federal attention to shale oil and gas production turned out to be the real focus of a May 31 House Oversight Committee energy hearing on whether President Barack Obama is pursuing an "all of the above" energy strategy.

The day-long "Rhetoric vs. Reality" hearing in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives aired lawmaker and industry aggravation over permitting delays, new layers of regulation and what is seen or portrayed as unnecessary federal meddling in areas that states are handling just fine.

With one exception, witnesses invited to the morning session, titled "Does President Obama Really Support an ‘All-of-the-Above' Strategy?," answered "no." They broke no new ground through references to perceptions of federal regulatory overreach and of favoritism for some fuels over others

Arguing that President Obama does not get enough credit for support of fossil fuels, Democrats and their witness pointed in the morning session to tremendous increases in oil and gas production during his presidency.

Republicans and their witnesses countered that the Obama administration can't take credit for oil and gas production increases — the technology development and permitting for current production took place largely under President Bush and, while production has increased on private lands, it has been flat on federal lands.

The afternoon session, titled "Assessing the Impact of New Federal Red Tape on Hydraulic Fracturing and American Energy Independence," focused on questions of "Why all the attention?"

Cornell University biogeochemist Robert Howarth, known especially for his work on methane emissions from shale oil and gas operations, countered the industry's common observation that hydraulic fracturing has been done for decades and there's no reason to direct greater regulatory effort toward it now, especially not from the federal government.

What is not decades old, he pointed out, as many have, is the combination of directional drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracturing that uses millions of gallons of water per well.

"As a result, the science, our understanding of the consequences, is very, very new," he said.

Half of all shale gas that has ever been developed was produced in the last three years, he said in support of that.

And almost all of the peer-reviewed literature on the topic has been published in the last year, he added — the first paper dating to 14 months ago.

From his 35-year career working with regulators, he said, he believes most state regulators lack the technical expertise to deal with the complex issues involved in shale gas.

Howarth's 2011 estimate that as much as 8 percent of a shale gas well's production escapes as fugitive emissions through its lifetime has been criticized as unrealistically high. But he told the Oversight Committee members that an about-to-be-published estimate from Colorado scientists about will show his estimates were conservative.

Questions that committee member Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., directed to Environmental Protection Agency Acting Administrator for Water Nancy Stoner on the agency's definition of diesel illustrate the types of frustrations lawmakers expressed throughout the hearing.

In early May, the agency issued draft permitting guidelines for the use of diesel fuel in hydraulic fracturing. Congress exempted hydraulic fracturing operations in 2005 from the requirement to obtain a permit through the Underground Injection Control program unless they use diesel, sometimes included as a lubricant or solvent.

In its draft guidelines, the agency defined "diesel" as a set of six fuels, including home heating oil and kerosene.

"If I drove a diesel truck and then poured kerosene into it, I would not consider that a diesel fuel. The definition is fairly clear," said Lankford as context for one of the industry's objections to the proposed guidelines. "Many companies saw the ruling in 2005, saw the statement from Congress saying diesel fuels will be regulated, so they shifted from diesel fuel, and this has the perception that you're redefining diesel fuel so they'll be included."

Stoner explained an agency note in the draft guidelines saying that "diesel fuels" is not uniformly defined.

"We (defined it) by looking at Chemical Abstracts Service numbers," she said. "Kerosene is marine diesel fuel. All six are diesel fuel. That's where we got the six CAS numbers from. Our proposed definition, we're taking comments, we feel it's very clear."

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