- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 8, 2012

The natural gas industry and its opponents are readying their final arguments for what many think will be a critical year in the debate over “fracking” safety.

Supporters of the hydraulic fracturing process - the use of water, sand and chemicals to break underground rock and release huge amounts of gas - boast of recent economic growth, with hundreds of thousands of jobs created in the past several years and small, sleepy communities in Pennsylvania, North Dakota and elsewhere transformed into boomtowns.

Skeptics point to reports of suspected water contamination and links to earthquakes that some consider too high a price to pay.

Both sides of the debate eagerly await an Environmental Protection Agency report due out later this year that observers generally expect to call for harsh crackdowns and new federal regulations on the practice.

Whatever the report says, it’s likely to have a big effect on the attitudes of average Americans and, in the process, affect the future of U.S. energy policy.

“It’s a make-or-break year in the public arena,” said Ken von Schaumburg, who served as deputy general counsel at the EPA during the Bush administration. “And when you can’t beat someone with cold, hard facts, you’re going to need public opinion.”

Mr. von Schaumburg said he expects the EPA to follow the wishes of the White House and demonize fracking as an unsafe practice that should be, at minimum, heavily regulated and, at most, shut down entirely to focus on development of non-fossil fuels, such as wind and solar power.

“It’s based on a predetermination. That’s what they want it to say,” he said of the report.

The EPA already has fired its opening shot.

Last month, the agency released a report that blamed fracking for water contamination in the small town of Pavillion, Wyo. The industry has denied those charges, and an independent third-party review is expected to begin soon.

Water pollution used to be the most common concern cited by fracking critics, but another potential danger tied to the practice in the past nine months is the risk of earthquakes.

Ohio has experienced at least 11 tremors since March linked to the disposal of wastewater created during fracking. State officials have shut down all disposal wells in the area while investigations continue.

The quakes have given more ammunition to opponents, who sense an opportunity this year to crush the fracking practice for good.

“I think 2012 is a critical year for us to decide as a country what direction we want to go. Natural gas might be a clean energy source, but right now we’re seeing a lot of evidence of pollution,” said Levana Layendecker, a spokeswoman for Democracy for America, the liberal political action committee founded by former Vermont governor and one-time presidential hopeful Howard Dean. The organization has become one of the most vocal critics of the industry and operates the website stopfrackingnow.com.

“You can’t just say we’ll create jobs at any cost. Destroying drinking water for entire communities creates another kind of economic devastation,” she said.

The group is also pushing the Frac Act, legislation backed by some House Democrats that would require all energy companies to disclose the chemicals they use during the process. Colorado and some other states have enacted similar legislation, and many natural gas firms voluntarily list their mixtures on the Internet.

Most companies recycle and reuse their water rather than injecting it back into the earth. The reinjection process is blamed for minor earthquakes such as those in Ohio.

The industry has made concerted efforts to become more open and responsible over the years by disclosing the use of chemicals and recycling water, but it has frequently underestimated the passion of its opposition, said Daniel Kish, senior vice president of policy at the Institute for Energy Research.

“To the opponents, this is street theater,” he said. “It’s about doing movies, documentaries, demonstrations, all of which bring attention. They’ll use everything. Earthquakes, water pollution, air pollution, global warming, you name it. Any excuse, anything that will get traction. And [the gas industry] always underestimates the money that the opposition has to spend.”

In response, the industry cites its contributions to the economy. In the first two quarters of last year, 27,000 jobs were created in the Marcellus Shale region, one of the richest gas deposits in the world, according to data from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry.

Such figures likely will make it difficult for the Obama administration to outlaw the practice entirely. Instead, Mr. Kish and others say, if President Obama wins a second term, the EPA will slowly strangle the process and make it virtually impossible for companies to employ fracking.

“They understand that it’s easier to boil a frog slowly,” he said.