U.S. natural gas industry fights back on fracking

DALLAS (Reuters) - U.S. natural gas industry officials on Thursday defended a controversial drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing as the industry braces for possible new government regulations.

Workers change drilling pipes on the rotary table of a natural gas drilling rig near Towanda, Pennsylvania, February 3, 2010. REUTERS/Tim Shaffer

Hydraulic fracturing injects millions of gallons of water, sand and a proprietary mix of chemicals up to two miles underground where it breaks open fissures in the gas-bearing shale to allow the gas to be extracted.

Some environmental groups claim the technique, which is often referred to as “fracking”, is unsafe and threatens supplies of drinking water, but the industry claims its practice is safe.

“There is no known instance where fracking has contaminated someone’s drinking water,” said Will Brackett, the managing editor of the Powell Barnett Shale Newsletter, speaking on an industry panel sponsored by the George W. Bush Institute and Southern Methodist University’s Cox Maguire Energy Institute.

Bush, the former U.S. president and Texas oil man, said more natural gas drilling would create more U.S. jobs. Bush did not touch on the hydraulic fracturing debate.

“When you explore for natural gas, when you develop natural gas, when you lay pipelines for natural gas, Americans are working,” Bush said in opening remarks to the conference.

Earlier this month, the top U.S. environmental regulator said she was “very concerned” about the practice. The Environmental Protection Agency last week said it will conduct a study of drinking water impacts, which could mean new regulations on a booming area of the energy sector.

An industry scramble to develop vast shale deposits that are estimated to contain enough natural gas to meet U.S. needs for up to a century has brought drilling rigs within the limits of cities like Dallas and Fort Worth.

A bill in Congress would require gas companies to disclose the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing and give the EPA oversight of the industry, which is now regulated by the states.

Industry officials dismissed any suggestion that their drilling practices were dangerous.

“We have had some issues in less than half a dozen cases and they have been mostly mistakes and it is not clear that the issue is directly related to the fracking process itself,” said Randy Foutch, chairman and CEO of privately-held Laredo Petroleum.

Some residents who live near gas rigs in states from Pennsylvania to Wyoming say their water has become undrinkable since drilling companies fractured the wells and they complain of sickness and skin rashes after using the water.

Removing gas from shale rock accounts for 15 to 20 percent of U.S. natural gas production and provides a relatively clean energy source for the United States, which is trying to reduce its dependence on foreign oil.

Editing by John Picinich