Statement of Senator Barbara Boxer
Joint Hearing: Full Committee and Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife
"Natural Gas Drilling: Public Health and Environmental Impacts"
April 12, 2011
(Remarks as prepared for delivery.)

Today we will examine the public health and environmental impacts of natural gas drilling. This hearing comes at an important time in the history of natural gas development in the U.S.

Recent advancements in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have led to a significant expansion in proven U.S. natural gas reserves. Natural gas resources are now recoverable that were considered uneconomical even a few years ago.

The discovery of new resources creates an opportunity for increased production of a cleaner, domestically-produced fuel. While this could have benefits for our nation's economy and energy independence, it is critical to ensure that exploration for natural gas is done safely and responsibly.

One of the key reasons for the increase in natural gas reserves is the discovery of the Marcellus Shale in the Appalachian region of the United States, which underlays portions of Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York. With drilling in this part of the country likely to increase exponentially in coming years, it is critical that we ensure efforts to extract natural gas do not threaten the air we breathe and the water we drink.

I want to thank Senator Cardin, whose state is directly impacted by the Marcellus shale discovery, for his leadership on this important issue and for helping to spearhead our Committee's oversight efforts on public health and environmental impacts of natural gas exploration. This oversight is vital to make sure drilling is done responsibly and not in a way that would subject our children and families to harmful pollution.

There are questions that need to be answered about the safety of natural gas exploration and hydraulic fracturing. A recent series of investigative reports in the New York Times highlighted the potential risks of natural gas drilling and inconsistent efforts to regulate this booming industry. Some of the findings of the New York Times investigation raise significant issues.

For example, the Times reported that hydraulic fracturing process wastewater is often contaminated with pollutants, including toxic metals, highly corrosive salts, carcinogens such as benzene, and radioactive elements. A large amount of this wastewater is disposed in municipal sewage treatment plants that may not be equipped to remove the contaminants.

These plants can discharge harmful levels of radiation and toxic substances into local waterways, and the solid waste produced may also contain an array of toxins. Without proper oversight, the disposal of drilling wastewater poses threats to both aquatic life and human health, especially when public drinking water systems rely on waterways where waste is being discharged.

Concerns have also been raised that chemicals contained in the fluids used in the hydraulic fracturing process can contaminate groundwater sources. However, federal and state regulators and concerned citizens have not had all the information they need to determine whether drilling is causing groundwater contamination. Historically, some companies have limited access to information on the chemicals used in their drilling fluids.

The Federal government does not currently require drilling operators to fully disclose the chemicals they are injecting into the ground. Some states, such as Wyoming, now require disclosure of chemicals used in the fracking process. The industry has also recently launched a voluntary disclosure effort with the Ground Water Protection Council and others. These are encouraging developments, but we still have a long way to go before full disclosure is a consistent, industry-wide practice.

I have highlighted only a few of the health and environmental issues that have been associated with natural gas drilling. Additional issues include air pollution and impacts on water supplies due to the millions of gallons of water that are needed at each natural gas well.

Given the array of potential impacts and the need for more study, the state of New York is taking a time-out on hydraulic fracturing, choosing to fully study the issues first before allowing widespread drilling.

The U.S. EPA has also been directed by Congress to study the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on water supplies. I expect that the agency will use an independent, comprehensive and scientific process to provide Congress and the public with accurate and unbiased information that will help us ensure public health is protected.

There is much still to be learned about the impacts of natural gas drilling. With the rapid expansion of exploration for this energy source and the potential for it to help meet a significant portion of the nation's energy needs, we have much to gain from a full review of this issue. We must move forward in a way that ensures safe and responsible drilling that is protective of our air and water.

This hearing is an important step in the EPW committee's oversight on this issue. I look forward to the testimony of the witnesses here today.

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