Congressional hearings look at fracking

Technological developments have led to the natural gas boom in Louisiana and many others states.

Federal lawmakers held several congressional hearings and meetings this week trying to get a handle on supporting the economic development while protecting the environment.

Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who head the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, are working on potential bipartisan legislation to help production move forward safely.

The Interior Department could announce as soon as Friday new rule tweaks for the natural gas production process of hydraulic fracturing, called “fracking.”

In Louisiana, fracking is being used for the natural gas producing Haynesville Shale area in northwestern Louisiana and the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale that stretches across the middle part of the state and contains what is called Louisiana Light Sweet crude oil.

The relatively new fracking technology involves forcing millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals under high pressure into the shale formations deep underground to make cracks in the shale to release natural gas and oil.

“There are substantial environmental questions here, but there’s no difference of opinion, at least in the Senate, that this is something where we need to try to find common ground,” Wyden said Thursday.

Wyden pointed to Texas, where less than half of a percent of shale gas is burned off, or “flared,” as a potential model for other areas, where up to 30 percent of gas is flared.

In Cameron Parish, the Sabine Pass liquefied natural gas terminal was the first in the nation approved for exporting the gas. Several other LNG exporting applications are pending in Louisiana, but new Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said this week that the process is being slowed down to review them on a case-by-case basis.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who participated in Wyden’s roundtable discussion with industry and environmental leaders, said she is a proponent of the growing natural gas industry in Louisiana.

“The rapid increase in domestic natural gas production has greatly benefited our nation,” she said. It is also creating a “manufacturing renaissance” in southern Louisiana and other parts of the nation, she said.

The U.S. has always been an importer of natural gas and the nation could become a net exporter by 2020, she said, citing scientific studies.

The other major pending project, which does not involve natural gas, is the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that would run from Canada to Texas – the approval of which was legislatively urged again this week by the GOP-controlled U.S. House.

The Louisiana delegation voted for it in a partisan vote. The lone Democrat, Rep. Cedric Richmond of New Orleans, voted no.

Environmental groups oppose the pipeline, but they are also fighting having too much domestic natural gas production, even though fracking for natural gas is a relatively cleaner alternative to coal-fired energy.

Some of the chemicals used in fracking include benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene, all of which can cause health problems in significant doses.

Mark Brownstein, the Environmental Defense Fund’s associate vice president and chief counsel, said natural gas production still presents “significant risks,” especially when it comes to leaks in pipes.

“We currently do a poor job at monitoring these leaks right now,” Brownstein said. “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.”

Deb Nardone, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Natural Gas Campaign, took offense to suggestions that natural gas is an ideal “transitional fuel” as the nation looks to advance more alternative energy sources. “It’s not a transitional fuel; it truly is a gangplank to a much warmer planet,” Nardone said.