Sheila McNulty Republicans will fight to keep natural gas pumping

In a sign of how controversial shale drilling has become, key Republican members of Congress are questioning the Obama administration’s moves to regulate the technology that has made the US gas boom possible.

US Rep Joe Barton and the man who beat him to the chairmanship of the House energy committee, Fred Upton (picutred), are pressing Ken Salazar, the interior secretary, for information related to the agency’s plans for new regulations on hydraulic fracturing.

Hydraulic fracturing, combined with horizontal drilling, has grown US gas production like nobody ever could have predicted. And yet the pushback by environmentalists has the Obama Administration studying whether tighter regulations are needed around onshore drilling as they tighten up those around offshore drilling following the Macondo explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. Indeed, natural gas producers have lived in fear the past few years, worrying that the economics around US gas production were going to worsen under tighter regulations.

It seems key members of Congress are not about to let that happen. Some excerpts from the letter to Mr Salazar:

Safe drilling practices are of critical importance. Because hydraulic fracturing is already a regulated practice, however, we believe it is essential that DOI focus on understanding the universe of existing federal and state regulations of hydraulic fracturing, water quality for underground sources of drinking water, emergency planning and reporting, and waste disposal requirements, and the expertise already being brought to bear on these activities before placing additional regulatory requirements on natural gas exploration and production

We fear a rush to regulate by DOI and the administration will chill domestic oil and gas development and would negatively impact our efforts to increase energy security and to provide for a reliable and affordable energy supply.

These are fighting words, and the Congressmen set the stage for battle by giving Mr Salazar until December 17 to answer a series of questions. Among them:

Does DOI intend to develop a rulemaking package on hydraulic fracturing on public lands? If yes, please provide a detailed schedule for any such planned activities.

What scientific information or data does DOI intend to rely upon to form the bases for such activities or regulatory actions?

You indicated that you regard the forum as the beginning of an administrative process on the practice of hydraulic fracturing on public lands.  Specifically, upon what legal authority does DOI base this administrative inquiry?

What actions has DOI undertaken to identify potential conflicts with existing federal and state environmental, safety, and other requirements involving hydraulic fracturing and related activities?

What mechanisms do you intend to include in any new rule or policy to protect proprietary information, including chemical formulas?

The list of questions go on, but you get the idea. Despite the drop in US natural gas prices that has made the shale boom less profitable than it had been before the gas glut, many believe big money remains to be made from US natural gas. That is why companies such as ExxonMobil and Chevron are buying into the play. The key to giving US gas support, however, is whether gas use really picks up and becomes a centrol component of US energy policy.

While many believe that will happen, and that the US will eventually encourage gas use over coal and oil – the dirtier fossil fuels – nothing is ever certain when it comes to US energy policy. Indeed, many are scratching their heads about how the Obama administration has yet to go full throttle in promoting natural gas with incentives. After all, not only is it clean but plentiful and a necessary backup to wind and solar, which remain intermittent.

To ensure the US uses its gas may take a fight. The Republicans, it seems, have fired a warning shot.