Hydraulic fracturing: The fracas explained

Posted: Apr 23, 2014

Post by Heather Hansen

When the EPA sent a subpoena to Halliburton earlier this month, demanding to know what’s in the fluid used to drive their hydraulic fracturing process for natural gas and oil production, industry watchers braced for a showdown. But, less than a week later, the company (which is one of the largest oilfield services corporations in the world) responded by posting information on its website, including a partial list of substances it’s currently using and on the new, environmentally-friendly version the company says it plans to put into play. The move, which is seen by cynics as an attempt to satisfy the EPA without implementing new regulations, raises questions about what mining companies should be required to reveal about their fracturing practices.

The EPA demanded the information as part of a study Congress ordered, amid citizen concerns that hydraulic fracturing may be contaminating water supplies and causing air pollution, and ultimately impacting the health of humans and the environment. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” is the process of driving a cocktail of water, sand and chemicals into the ground in order to create cracks in the rock through which natural gas and oil can be more easily accessed. Anywhere from 20 to 90 percent of the wastewater that’s left, which often amounts to millions of gallons, remains underground. The fracking fluid that it recaptured is generally stored above-ground in open pits until it can be treated.

While fracking fluids, which are also essential for reducing friction, are generally considered proprietary concoctions by the industry, some 944 chemicals were identified by scientists in a study released recently in the journal Human and Ecological Risk Assessment. The study focused on 73 of those substances that are found to have “10 or more adverse health effects.” These are toxic, even carcinogenic, ingredients that are considered potentially harmful to humans.

Whether or not the EPA has the authority to request fracking formulas,as it did from the nine leading natural gas drilling companies in a November letter, and whether or not it’s within its scope to regulate them, are legitimate questions. When it studied fracking in 2004, the agency concluded that (at least coal bed methane production wells) presented no danger of contaminating underwater drinking water sources. A year later Congress, acting on the Bush/ Cheney Energy Bill, exempted the industry from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. It basically told the EPA to take a hike and let fracking continue unsupervised. The act is commonly called the “Halliburton Loophole.”

Why should the EPA be able to come back at natural gas drillers just five years later? For good reason: since the exemption, there’s been a natural gas boom; fracking is now done in 38 states. The industry also has introduced new techniques like drilling horizontally, up to a mile, and busting into new kinds of rock. It’s also now being proposed relatively close to heavily-populated watersheds (specifically in the Marcellus Shale region in New York and Ohio). Hearings on fracking have drawn thousands of people expressing their concerns about their water quality and a handful of investigations, including one by the Colorado-based Oil and Gas Accountability Project, insist that people have been sickened by water polluted by fracking fluids.

In the West, where the natural gas boom has been focused in Colorado and Wyoming, there has been a telling response by state regulators. Last September, a range of tougher state rules went into effect for oil and gas drilling in Wyoming. The new regs put the state at the forefront of the push for disclosing what’s in fracking chemicals.

And Colorado is leading the charge to close the Halliburton Loophole. Last June, two U.S. representatives, Diana DeGette (from Denver) and Jared Polis (from Boulder), introduced the FRAC (Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals) Act, which is currently being considered by Congress. If passed, it would again subject fracking to the Safe Drinking Water Act.

While the Clean Water Act may not have been designed to look at fracking, as critics contend, the air and water acts have been expanded and amended many times over the past 40 years. Passing the FRAC Act would be a good start toward regulating a component critical to a booming business, and a meaningful move in defending our right to clean water.

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