Kate Mackenzie Fracking defended, just in case anyone planned to regulate it

Executives from ExxonMobil and XTO Energy appeared before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee yesterday to defend hydraulic fracturing, the process used to extract shale gas.

Fracking*, as it’s known, is currently only regulated at the state level, and Exxon has the right to terminate the $41bn acquisition of XTO if federal regulations make the practice commercially unviable. Reports from yesterday’s hearings suggest little appetite among representatives to do so, however.

An article from the Houston Chronicle quotes Exxon chief executive Rex Tillerson making the fairly unsurprising observations that regulation costs companies money, and that a ban on fracking would make it impossible to exploit shale gas reserves.

Reports of potential problems with hydrofracturing or fracking used in drilling the horizontal shale gas wells have proliferated in recent months, with a big reporting effort by ProPublica followed by stories in major news outlets. The main risk is that the chemicals used in the water-intensive process can contaminate drinking supplies, and create problems for disposal of wastewater.  Supporters argue that fracking has been carried out for decades; critics argue that it hadn’t been done in horizontal wells prior to the rise of shale gas.

The shale gas industry has had to defend the practice on Capitol Hill last year. But politicians, enthused by the potential energy security benefits of a natural gas boom, and its low emissions compared to coal, might not be so concerned.

Diana DeGette, a Democratic representative from Colorado, wants companies to be required to disclose the chemicals they use in fracking, something which the industry says would involve revealing proprietary information. But DeGette also said she supported the use of the process. Dow Jones reports that the lawmakers at the hearing were mostly positive on shale gas:

But mostly, Democrats emphasized that natural gas, which emits less carbon dioxide than fuels such as coal, will be essential to fighting climate change.

“We know that natural gas is the cleanest of fossil fuels,” said Rep. Lois Capps (D., Calif.). Though “there are legitimate public health and global warming concerns,” she said that securing U.S. energy supplies was also important.

Rep. Jay Inslee (D., Wash.) one of the most environmentally minded members of the Democratic caucus, said it was “good news” that a “major energy producer” sees the potential of natural gas. He urged Exxon to do more to invest in zero-emissions technology.

The report suggests Republicans were no less supportive.

Related links:

US natural gas producers defend hydraulic fracturing (FT ES, 12/06/09)

*There seems to be some minor disagreement about the spelling of ‘fracking’ versus ‘fracing’. We’re opting for the former, as it demonstrates the pronunciation more clearly, but feel free to discuss…