Federal regulations on the oil and gas industry, particularly for hydraulic fracturing, are slowing a potential nationwide economic boom and keeping the country from gaining greater energy independence, Oklahoma producers told congressional leaders on Friday.
Several officials with ties to the energy industry in Oklahoma, including newly elected Oklahoma Corporation Commission Chairman Patrice Douglas, testified during a field hearing of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform at the University of Central Oklahoma.
U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chairman of the panel, said new drilling techniques, including hydraulic fracturing, have dramatically increased the nation’s supply of oil and natural gas and provided an opportunity for a national economic recovery. But Issa said oppressive regulations from the federal government, often supported with manipulated or inaccurate scientific data, are choking that opportunity.
“We all understand that America is the Saudi Arabia of natural gas,” Issa said. “We do have an abundance of very clean fuel, one that if we used should please both the left, who want us to reduce our carbon footprint, and the right, myself included, who want to know that America can feed itself the energy that changed the Stone Age.”
Mike McDonald, the co-owner of Triad Energy, an Oklahoma City-based oil and gas production company, described hydraulic fracturing — called fracking by critics — as “the current bogeyman used by environmental activists to scare ordinary citizens.”
The process, which uses pressurized water, sand and chemicals to crack open fissures within rock formations to improve the flow of oil and gas, has been commonplace in Oklahoma for decades and has led to an explosion of natural gas exploration in Pennsylvania, Ohio and several other states.
The industry has long contended the practice is safe, but environmentalists and some residents who live near drilling sites say it has poisoned groundwater.
“More than 100,000 Oklahoma wells have been hydraulically fractured over the past 60 years without a single documented instance of contamination to ground water or drinking water,” McDonald said.
A spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency said the federal agency and the current administration acknowledge the importance of natural gas in the nation’s energy future, and says the agency is working with states and industry officials to ensure natural gas extraction “does not come at the expense of public health and the environment.”
“Since 2008, domestic oil and gas production has increased each year, with oil production in the first quarter of 2012 higher than any time in 14 years and natural gas production at its highest level ever,” EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson said in a statement.
Lawmakers also heard from Patricia Horn, an executive with Oklahoma Gas & Electric Company, who testified that the EPA’s clean air requirements will force the utility to spend more than $1 billion to install anti-pollution equipment on four of its five coal-burning power plants. The utility’s other option would be to convert its coal-fired plants to natural gas-powered facilities at an even greater cost, she said.
“Both of these options involve unprecedented rate implications for our customers and would commence what we believe is an adverse ripple effect on our Oklahoma economy and the ability of our state to create jobs,” Horn said.
Environmental advocates described Friday’s hearing as a “fossil fuels love-fest” and criticized Issa and Lankford for not including public health experts or supporters of the Clean Air Act on the panel.
“Instead of standing up for Oklahoma families’ health and future, Lankford and his witnesses attacked critically important clean air safeguards that will protect the future of our state and the health of our kids,” Whitney Pearson, an organizer for Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said in a statement.
Lankford acknowledged afterward that the testimony was one-sided in favor of the industry, but said the committee regularly receives testimony from federal regulators in Washington.
“To come out here and hear state regulators and state energy folks … is a different perspective,” Lankford said. “This is not a statement that we should have no regulations. There are appropriate roles for that (regulation), but number one, it has to involve sound science. If there’s no science behind it, then they’re guessing based on preferences, and that’s the issue we’re bumping up against now.”
Sean Murphy can be reached at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy