Democrats on House panel led by Pennsylvania lawmaker probe oversight of oil and gas drilling

Energy Associated Press

Democrats on a congressional oversight panel are stepping up their investigation into how well states are regulating the disposal of oil and gas waste, citing continuing public concern about the potential environmental and health risks of hydraulic fracturing.

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Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., the lead Democrat on a health subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, says he will be pressing environmental agencies in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia for fuller answers to his panel's questions on their level of inspections and enforcement actions. Republicans on the committee, including subcommittee chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio, have not yet taken a position on whether to join the investigation, citing in part jurisdictional questions.

Of particular concern is making sure their waterways are not contaminated by waste from fracking, which uses millions of gallons of high-pressure water mixed with sand and chemicals to break apart rocks rich in oil and gas. That process leaves behind a host of chemicals, sludge and other potentially toxic fluids.

Cartwright is also asking for a state accounting of how complaints from local residents about health effects are handled.

He said state replies so far have been disappointing, mostly listing state regulations without discussing enforcement. Cartwright said the responses did little to allay questions about potential gaps in state oversight that the federal government may need to address. Currently, federal regulations on hazardous waste generally exempt those fluids related to fracking.

"I remain committed to this investigation, and I am looking for answers, not a collection of public files," Cartwright told The Associated Press.

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The review was launched in October, focusing first on Pennsylvania, the third-largest natural gas producer. Democrats were reviewing whether to extend their inquiry to other high-fracking states, which include California, Colorado and Texas.

It comes amid heightened public attention on the environmental and public health impacts of fracking, which has unlocked billions of dollars of gas reserves and a boom in production, jobs and profits. Regulators contend that overall, water and air pollution problems are rare, but environmental groups and some scientists say there hasn't been enough research. Last December, New York said it would ban fracking, citing unexplored health risks, while scores of cities in other states have considered bans.

In Pennsylvania, the Department of Environmental Protection under then-Republican Gov. Tom Corbett responded to Cartwright's inquiry last fall in part by sending copies of its state code.

New Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has since reinstated a ban on new natural gas drilling on Pennsylvania state parks and forests that sit atop the natural gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation and announced plans for a natural gas severance tax. A spokeswoman for the department, Julie Lalo, said it has not yet heard from Cartwright but "absolutely agrees that managing waste generated by oil and gas development is a serious issue that requires strong oversight."

David Spigelmyer, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, questioned whether a federal review was needed, pointing to nearly 70 state regulations that apply to shale in Pennsylvania alone. The formation also lies under large parts of West Virginia, Ohio and New York. "Our industry remains laser-focused on environmental compliance and across-the-board safety," he said.

The Ohio EPA has yet to reply, though a spokeswoman said it was in the process of doing so. West Virginia responded with a letter last week noting recent statutes and its intention to conduct a study of radiation levels of drilling waste by July.

The House Democratic staff said it was considering other options to encourage a fuller response from states as Democratic lawmakers ponder legislation to strengthen federal regulations; the subcommittee has subpoena power only if Republicans join the probe. Legislation to restrict fracking would face an uphill battle in a Republican-controlled Congress.

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