The Norman Transcript

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October 14, 2012

GAO report delivers mixed message on gas drilling

NORMAN — Shale gas and oil drilling pose environmental and public health risks, but the extent of those risks is unknown, the Congressional Government Accountability Office says in new study.

The GAO, an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress, reviewed existing scientific reports on shale drilling, and spoke to state regulators, industry experts and environmental groups.

Regulators from Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Texas said state investigations found that the part of the drilling process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has not been identified as a cause of groundwater contamination, the report notes.

Travis Windle, a spokesman for the industry group the Marcellus Shale Coalition, suggested that the GAO report, “like so many other independent reports, determines that hydraulic fracturing is safe and that this critical, tightly-regulated technology has never impacted groundwater.”

But the GAO also noted that, according to studies and publications, “underground migration of gases and chemicals poses a risk of contamination to water quality.” For example, the GAO said that the Ohio Department of Natural Resources found in 2008 that a gas well with a faulty seal allowed natural gas to build up and migrate into the local aquifer, infiltrating drinking water wells.

George Jugovic, president of the Pennsylvania environmental group PennFuture, said he doesn’t think the public cares which specific part of the drilling process poses a threat to health or the environment.

“I don’t think it serves the industry well to shy away from what is a legitimate public concern,” Jugovic said, noting that every industrial process has some risk. The question is what risk people are willing to live with, he added.

Hydraulic fracturing has made it possible to tap into deep reserves of oil and gas but has also raised concerns about pollution. Large volumes of water, along with sand and hazardous chemicals, are injected underground to break rock apart and free the oil and gas.

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