Fracking debate taking shape on Capitol Hill

Hydraulic fracturing is shaping up to be one of the big dramas of our newly-minted 112th U.S. Congress, and the various actors are already hinting at how the debate will unfold.

President Barack Obama's administration has hinted that gas drilling could emerge as a major issue this year. The day after the midterm elections were swept by Republicans in November, Obama surprised gas industry advocates and critics alike by singling out natural gas drilling as a point of compromise with the newcomers in Congress.

But despite the President's professed enthusiasm for natural gas, according to a January 4th article in the New York Times by the environmental news source Greenwire, the Obama administration has continued to tread a middle ground:

To the extent administration decisions since then have dealt with drilling, they have reined in the industry ... Fossil fuel enthusiasts say they have seen no change in Obama's approach since the Nov. 2 election that he dubbed a "shellacking."

The story cites several administration moves that seem to send mixed messages about fracking.

The first occurred in November, at a forum on hydraulic fracturing hosted by the Department of Interior, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar outraged the drilling industry when he informed the gathering that his department would was considering regulations -- the disclosure of secret fracking-fluid recipes -- which are a sore point with the drilling industry:

Now within the Department of the Interior and the Bureau for Land Management we will be considering issuing a policy that will deal with the issue of disclosure requirements with respect to the fluids that are used with hydraulic fracturing.

At the same time, in a different arena, Obama officials were more open to industry desires, the story points out. According to E&E Publishing, which provides the New York Times with environmental news, the administration's representative on the Delaware River Basin Commission supported the DRBC's December decision to release draft regulations that would allow drilling in the Delaware River's watershed before a full review of the effects of drilling is completed.

From an E&E article written in December:

The Obama administration supports a full study of the effects of gas drilling in the watershed that provides drinking water for Philadelphia and New York City, but it doesn't want to wait until it's finished for drilling to begin.

While the Obama administration's stance on gas drilling may be hard to read, some members of the new Congress are staking out clear positions on hydraulic fracturing. 

On the first day of the new congressional session, January 5th, a pro-fracking contingent of the House of Representatives issued a challenge to Salazar's proposal. Thirty-two members of the Congressional Natural Gas Caucus showed their support for natural gas development by signing a letter opposing any regulations that would require the disclosure of the ingredients in fracking fluid used in drilling on public lands. 

The following week, 46 members of the House of Representatives -- led by New York Congressman Maurice Hinchey, a longtime champion of tough regulation for the natural gas industry -- responded with their own letter to Salazar in favor of requiring the disclosures.

The Congressional crowd calling for tougher environmental regulation may have more warm bodies so far, but reporter Abrahm Lustgarten, who covers hydraulic fracturing for ProPublica, pointed out this week that the pro-industry representatives have more money:

[I]f money is an indicator, the anti-regulatory group has the upper hand. A back-of-the-envelope analysis of campaign finance dollars contributed to the members of Congress who are speaking out on the issue shows that the Natural Gas Caucus received 19 times more money from the oil and gas industry between 2009 and 2010 [5] than the group who signed Rep. Hinchey’s letter.

It's still unclear what all this letter-writing and posturing on natural gas means for upstate New York -- but this year, we can probably expect more action, or at least debate, from Washington on that front.