From left, former Vice President Dick Cheney, Rep. John Salazar, Rep. Diana DeGette and Sen. Bob Casey are all trying to leave their mark on how natural gas is drilled in the U.S. (Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica)
Four years after Vice President Dick Cheney spearheaded a massive energy bill that exempted natural gas drilling from federal clean water laws, Congress is having second thoughts about the environmental dangers posed by the burgeoning industry.
With growing evidence that the drilling can damage water supplies, Democratic leaders in Congress are circulating legislation that would repeal the extraordinary exemption and for the first time require companies to disclose all chemicals used in the key drilling process, called hydraulic fracturing .
The proposed legislation has already stirred sharp debate.
The energy industry has launched a broad effort in Washington to fend off this proposed tightening of federal oversight, lobbying members of Congress and publishing studies that highlight what it says are the dangers of regulation. In mid-May, the industry released a detailed report asserting that the changes in current law would cost jobs and slash tax revenues. A key advocate of past efforts to regulate gas drilling, Rep. John Salazar  (D-CO), has declined to support the legislation, expressing concern about how it would affect the energy companies.
However, with a strengthened Democratic majority in Congress and the party's capture of the White House in last year's election, the fracturing legislation is viewed as having its best chance at passage in years. Its House sponsor, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) , aims to attach a bill to a larger piece of legislation with broad support -- possibly a bill on climate change or a new energy policy measure – where it would be shielded from industry resistance. On the Senate side, according to congressional staff close to the effort, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA)  has a companion bill ready to follow.
"The regulatory loophole for hydraulic fracturing puts public health at risk and isn't justified," Henry Waxman (D-CA) , chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee , which will offer the bill, said in an e-mail. "The current exemption for the oil and gas industry means that we can't even get the information necessary to evaluate the health threats from these practices."
The industry -- which has long argued that fracturing has never been proven to have contaminated water -- points to a study published in April by the Department of Energy , which asserts that state laws adequately regulate hydraulic fracturing. But that report, titled "Modern Shale Gas Development in the United States: A Primer " (PDF), and written by the Ground Water Protection Council , a broad consortium that includes industry groups, contains several questionable statements. One passage notes that "the Safe Drinking Water Act regulates the injection of fluids from shale gas activities," without mentioning that the exemptions have created significant exceptions, and that on the whole the act does not regulate all injections.
"You have very substantial economic elements that are concerned about their abilities to do whatever they want to for their own economic advantages," said Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) , who is also sponsoring the bill. "They are going to do whatever they can to ensure that there is not a majority of the members here voting for something like this bill."
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