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As shale gas booms, drilling 'frackdown' has industry on edge

June 30, 2009 - Ever since the Barnett Shale formation in North Texas proved to be one of the most prolific natural gas plays in North America, producers have been flocking to other shales from Appalachia to the Gulf Coast in hopes of extracting the trillions of cubic feet of gas believed to be trapped beneath.

But the much-publicized gas rush has prompted a backlash from lawmakers worried that the drilling technique most often used -- hydraulic fracturing -- threatens to pollute drinking water supplies and, as a result, public health.

The issue has quickly developed into a national debate, pitting politicians who want to sharply curtail "fracking" through federal legislation against the powerful oil and gas lobby that believes such a crackdown would unduly prevent huge volumes of domestic gas from being produced.

Fracking, which is currently regulated at the state level, is a process whereby various chemical fluids are injected at high pressure into underground rock formations to blast them open and increase the flow of gas and oil.

Fracking "is a safe, proven, 50-year-old technology that is critical to developing the natural gas used to heat homes, generate electricity and create basic materials for fertilizers and plastics," American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard said recently.

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"More than 1 million wells have been completed using this technology. Unnecessary regulation of this practice would only hurt the nation's energy security and threaten our economy."

Not so fast, says Democratic Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, where most of the gas-rich Marcellus Shale is located.

Casey joined Democratic Representatives Diana DeGette and Jared Polis of Colorado and Maurice Hinchey of New York to introduce companion Senate and House bills known as the FRAC Act -- the Fracking Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act. (Listen to a related podcast: Congress proposes fracking legislation .)

The legislation would repeal a portion of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which states that fracking is not subject to regulation under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

It also would require the gas industry to disclose the chemicals used in the fracking process.

"Drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale across much of Pennsylvania is part of our future," Casey said.

"We already have private wells contaminated by gas and fluids used in hydraulic fracturing. We need to make sure that this doesn't become a statewide problem over the next few decades as we extract natural gas."

While a similar bill to federally regulate fracking went nowhere in the last Congress, the latest version is expected to get a broader hearing given the attention that shale gas drilling has received over the past year.

The battle lines are drawn.

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