Yesterday, the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee held a joint hearing with its Water and Wildlife Subcommittee to discuss the environmental and public health impacts of hydraulic fracturing (fracking). In perhaps the most sensational portion of the hearing, EPA Deputy Administrator Robert Perciasepe stated that drillers who use or have used diesel in their fracking fluid and do not have a federal permit are in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). Perciasepe’s comments mark the first time the Agency has taken a concrete position on this issue, which is currently in litigation in the United States Courts of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Perciasepe went on to characterize EPA’s goal as ensuring public confidence in fracking so that the practice can move forward. When pushed to explain how the Agency has responded to reports of problems associated with fracking practices, Perciasepe recognized that the states “are on the front lines.” He stated that EPA’s current role has been to provide oversight to the state programs and take action where endangerment exists—explaining that the Agency has legal authority under multiple federal statutes to regulate hydraulic fracturing and is more than willing to use it.

Senators on both sides of the aisle underscored the important role natural gas will play in achieving national energy independence and creating jobs. But while some highlighted the lack of proven cases of drinking water contamination, many expressed concern over the potential environmental and health risks associated with hydraulic fracturing

Potentially signaling a broader effort by Congress to regulate fracking, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) inquired into the applicability of the Clean Air Act (CAA) with respect to air pollution caused by fracking operations. Perciasepe answered that EPA is carefully looking into whether technology standards will be appropriate for the criteria pollutants emerging from hydraulic fracturing operations. Environmentalists have long pushed for changes to the CAA that would allow authorities to aggregate various parts of drilling operations to allow region-wide or basin-wide regulation. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) focused his questions on methane contamination of drinking water, like the claims portrayed in the documentary Gasland. Perciasepe voiced that EPA is in the process of taking enforcement action to deal with reports of methane contamination.

With three new fracking bills entered by Sen. Robert Casey (R-PA) alone, Congress is poised to grapple with expanding federal regulatory authority over the natural gas industry in the near future. Meanwhile, industry’s eyes will be glued to EPA to see how the Agency reconciles Perciasepe’s comments regarding federal violations where diesel fuel has been used and the issues raised by the ongoing D.C. Circuit litigation.