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GAO concludes risks from drilling unknown; regulators say fracking isn't an issue

| Friday, Oct. 12, 2012, 6:29 p.m.

PITTSBURGH — Shale gas and oil drilling pose environmental and public health risks, but the extent of those risks is unknown, the Congressional Government Accountability Office says in a new study.

The GAO, an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress, reviewed existing scientific reports on shale drilling, and spoke to state regulators, industry experts and environmental groups.

Regulators from Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Texas said state investigations found that the part of the drilling process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has not been identified as a cause of groundwater contamination, the report notes.

Travis Windle, a spokesman for the industry group the Marcellus Shale Coalition, suggested that the GAO report, “like so many other independent reports, determines that hydraulic fracturing is safe and that this critical, tightly-regulated technology has never impacted groundwater.”

But the GAO also noted that, according to studies and publications, “underground migration of gases and chemicals poses a risk of contamination to water quality.”

George Jugovic, president of the Pennsylvania environmental group PennFuture, said he doesn't think the public cares which specific part of the drilling process poses a threat to health or the environment.

“I don't think it serves the industry well to shy away from what is a legitimate public concern,” Jugovic said.

Hydraulic fracturing has made it possible to tap into deep reserves of oil and gas but has also raised concerns about pollution.

In a separate report, the GAO said both federal and state agencies face challenges in regulating shale oil and gas wells, such as a lack of data and limited legal authority. But they also found that some states — such as Ohio and Pennsylvania — have strengthened regulations in recent years, based on recommendations from independent reviews.

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