08/02/2010 10:58 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Natural Gas Critics Raising A Stink Over Lack Of Oversight

Last Tuesday, not long before Harry Reid unveiled a pared-down energy bill to the Senate, Representative Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) was the guest of honor at a breakfast fundraiser benefiting his reelection campaign. The event was held at the offices of the American Gas Association, an organization representing the interests of the natural gas industry.

Becerra -- the 52-year-old vice chair of the Democratic caucus and a rising star in his party -- wasn't coy about his benefactors: In large lettering the invitation designated the event an "Energy Industry Breakfast" and prominently featured its hosts, which included California utility behemoths PG&E, Edison International and Sempra Energy.

Just hours later, Representatives Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.) hosted a congressional screening of "Gasland", a documentary examining the effects of natural gas exploration and extraction. In a "Dear Colleague" letter sent to lawmakers and obtained by the Huffington Post, Hinchey and Polis stated that the film "details the risks that natural gas drilling, and specifically the practice of hydraulic drilling, can pose to the public when there is little or no government oversight."

The movie, a hit at the Sundance Film Festival and aired on HBO, links increased natural gas extraction -- and in particular the extraction process of hydraulic fracturing -- to adverse health effects and environmental decay. In a jarring scene meant to highlight water contamination, a man holds a flame to his kitchen faucet only to have it spark a giant fireball.

These conflicting events underscore the precarious situation natural gas companies find themselves in. On the one hand, their resource is hailed by a growing number of politicians as a bridge between traditional energy sources such as coal and oil and greener alternatives like wind, solar and biofuel. These supporters claim it contributes less to to global warming and cite its domestic availability as a surefire way to wean the country off foreign oil.

On the other hand, many lawmakers, green activists and scientists are sounding the alarm over mounting evidence that the exploration and extraction of the resource can have devastating effects. Much of this has been focused on the hydraulic fracturing extraction method -- known colloquially as "fracking" -- which essentially shakes loose the gas by shooting a mix of water and chemicals deep into the ground. Critics say this process can lead to water and air pollution. The industry is still operating under a notorious exemption in the Safe Drinking Water Act that allow oil and gas companies to operate under much less scrutiny from federal regulators than other business sectors.

"Through the lens of reducing global warming pollution, natural gas certainly has a leg up on coal but still creates sizable amounts of global warming pollution," Nathan Wilcox, director of Environment America's federal global warming program, told the Huffington Post. "But even aside from global warming pollution, natural gas is by no means a 'clean' fuel, as the extraction of natural gas is a dirty and dangerous process that has devastated communities across the country."

Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), echoed this sentiment. "The process of extracting and producing and processing natural gas presents a wide range of serious threats to human health and the environment," she said in an interview, adding that "natural gas has a role to play as we transition into a cleaner energy future. I think there is broad agreement on that."

Natural gas has been the focus of increasing amounts of negative attention recently. In June the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection suspended the activities of two drilling companies after several well blowouts dispersed thousands of gallons of contaminated water and gas into the air. Around the same time, blowouts in Texas resulted in the deaths of three individuals. A bill introduced in the New York legislature would suspend all hydraulic fracturing until the EPA completes a study of its effects.

Representatives of the industry take issue with its critics and remain confident in its benefits, a belief articulated by American Gas Association spokesperson Jennifer O'Shea. "Natural gas is efficient, reliable and the cleanest fossil fuel that exists," says O'Shea. "99 percent of the natural gas we use in the United States comes from North America, and supplies are abundant right here at home, which can help decrease our reliance on foreign energy sources."

The industry has spent millions spreading this message to lawmakers. The Hill reported in June that America's Natural Gas Alliance, an umbrella group that represents the full spectrum of natural gas interests, from drillers to distributors, has spent $1.6 million on lobbying fees since 2009. Several members predicted its annual budget could reach upwards of $80 million. Last year the American Gas Association hosted at least a dozen fundraisers for congressmen and senators of both parties. In New York, it was reported that natural gas groups spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to derail a bill that would have temporarily suspended hydraulic fracturing. In a move seen by many as an attempt to align itself with the Democratic majority, PG&E recently broke with the conservative Chamber of Commerce.

Its efforts have produced mixed results. Many politicians including President Obama have touted the benefits of natural gas and are working to incorporate it into America's changing energy landscape. With events like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster that killed 29 miners in April dominating the news, lawmakers are eager to associate themselves with alternative energy sources. Yet many policy makers are still attempting to implement greater oversight of the industry.

This was evident in the scaled-back energy bill introduced by Harry Reid, which allots $3.8 billion for natural gas vehicle incentives. Yet that same bill also contains a provision which will require natural gas drillers to disclose to the public which chemicals they use in the hydraulic fracturing process, the same materials that critics say pollute drinking water. Natural gas officials strongly oppose the measure, saying it will reveal proprietary information already available to regulators.

Still, observers remain skeptical that the industry is doing everything it can to minimize the harmful byproducts of its activities. "It could be made cleaner," Amy Mall, the NRDC analyst said. "Industry has the technology and certainly the finances to operate in much cleaner ways than it is now." She added: "When people say 'cleaner burning' than oil or 'cleaner burning' than coal, that does not mean it's clean."