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Recently, I attended a hearing of the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources committee on the issue of fracking.The Department of Energy's scientific advisory board wanted to share with the senators their impressions from their initial report describing the need for more regulation of the industry. The distinguished panel of witnesses ultimately concluded that much more measurement is needed to assess what we need to know about how fracking affects drinking water quality.

What we already know a lot about is fracking's effects on water quantity.Senator Shaheen spoke about this in her colloquy with the former head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality Kathleen McGinty. Senator Shaheen, whose own subcommittee held a follow up hearing yesterday on water use in Eastern US fracking operations, wanted to know if we should charge industry for their water use.Hedging some, McGinty acknowledged that there are lots of good technologies for water reuse; and others that can remove impurities and re-inject the water in to the water table. But the challenge is the economics remains difficult as long as water is free.

Increasingly, fracking operators are moving toward recycling their wasterwater and flowback.  Typical municipal sewage treatment facilities are poorly equipped to handle fracking fluids.  This leaves operators with the choice between the expense of disposing the wastewater elsewhere or increase recycling. Another panelist, Dr. Mark Zoback of Stanford University, agreed that economics is always the driver and suggested that maybe water resources should be regulated at the federal level.

This question of whether the state or federal government should regulate fracking dominated the discussion at both hearings.Some of the energy rich states, especially out West, have regulated the oil and gas industries for a long time.Many participate in an organization called STRONGER which is a coalition designed to share best management practices and regulations among oil and gas states.   By and large, industry argues that local control will better account for geological differences, but some are willing to work with the Environmental Protection Agency to help fill gaps.

For example, states do not regulate fugitive methane emissions.As Chairman Bingaman noted, methane is not state specific.Neither are other air pollutants, diesel fuel, or wastewater.EPA is in the process of formulating rules to govern each. The EPA's role is essential in setting national standards to avoid a state-by-state regulatory race to the bottom.  If industry claims are true that regulatory uncertainty stifles investment, then more oil and gas companies should support EPA's efforts at setting national standards to provide clarity in the market.