WASHINGTON — Scientists from Cornell University and Ithaca College briefed congressional aides Friday on what they say is a lack of research on the health and environmental impacts of a natural gas drilling process called hydraulic fracturing.
”Fracking is surrounded by metaphors rather than data,” said Sandra Steingraber, a biologist and scholar in residence at Ithaca College. “Many of the chemicals used in fracking are carcinogens.”
Federal energy officials announced Thursday they will create a working group to study hydraulic fracturing. Energy Secretary Steven Chu wants the panel of scientists, environmentalists and industry representatives to report within 90 days on ”immediate steps that can be taken to improve the safety and environmental performance of fracking.”
Panel members will issue a second report within 180 days, providing advice also to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department.
But a leading House Republican doesn’t want more studies.
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., issued a statement Thursday saying the panel violates the administration’s pledge to reduce government waste, since the EPA and Interior officials already have studies underway.
“While it might take numerous government agencies to smoke a salmon, there are also too many cooks in the kitchen when it comes to the regulation of our nation’s energy supplies,” Upton said.
The Interior Department is examining whether new leases for drilling on federal land should require drillers to disclose the chemicals they add to water and sand to crack open shale deposits of natural gas.
And EPA has a yearlong study underway on whether federal drinking water laws should apply to hydraulic fracturing.
The three scientists who spoke at Friday’s briefing -- two from Cornell and one from Ithaca -- said the hydraulic fracturing procedure is 60 years old, but its use in shale formations was developed over the last 10 years.
Cornell Engineering Professor Anthony Ingraffea said the technology has been used to drill only about 20,000 wells into shale formations.
”This is not your grandmother’s gas well,” Ingraffea said.
He said hydraulic fracturing in shale formations uses more water and sand, and produces more waste than conventional natural gas wells.
Some drill operators have reduced by 90 percent the fluid wastes produced by the drilling, but many have not, according to Ingraffea.
Robert Howarth, who teaches ecology and environmental biology at Cornell, recently released a study showing that hydraulic fracturing contributes more to global warming than burning coal does, in large part because the process creates methane leaks.
Those leaks increase as wells age, but new technologies can reduce it as much as 90 percent, Howarth said. He said methane leaks also are a problem with natural gas transmission lines. About half the nation’s 3.1 million miles of lines are more than 50 years old.