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Drilling Chemicals

Congress, natural gas producers clash over tainted-water claims

by Glenn Hess
August 17, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 33

Credit: Shutterstock
The oil and gas industry uses hydraulic fracturing in 90% of all wells drilled in the U.S.
Credit: Shutterstock
The oil and gas industry uses hydraulic fracturing in 90% of all wells drilled in the U.S.

Congressional Democrats are pushing legislation that would put under federal oversight a widely used oil and natural gas drilling practice that is suspected of endangering drinking water and would require energy producers to disclose the chemical additives used in the process.

But the industry is waging an intense campaign to persuade lawmakers that the practice, called hydraulic fracturing, is a safe, decades-old technology that is already aggressively regulated by state authorities.

“The states do a superb job of protecting human health and the environment through sound regulation,” says Carl M. Smith, executive director of the Interstate Oil & Gas Compact Commission, an organization of oil- and gas-producing states. “An unnecessary shift to federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing could greatly inhibit the production of much-needed oil and natural gas resources,” Smith says.

Hydraulic fracturing involves the pressurized injection of thousands of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals into solid rock formations, often more than a mile below Earth’s surface. The pressure is increased until the rock beds finally fracture, creating channels for previously unreachable deposits of oil and gas to flow through and up to the surface.

The technology has been used since the late 1940s, often to stimulate production in old wells and retrieve a greater amount of oil and gas than would otherwise be recovered. But its application has taken off in recent years as energy companies have learned how to unlock substantial amounts of gas trapped in deep underground shale rock formations across North America.

Critics of hydraulic fracturing want the federal government to get involved, arguing that the chemical components of the fluids that are injected underground may be harming nearby drinking-water wells. The solutions used in fracturing operations typically contain up to a dozen different chemical ingredients, such as guar gum, polyacrylamide, glutaraldehyde, ethylene glycol, and ammonium bisulfite.

“Communities have been expressing concerns about hydraulic fracturing causing drinking-water contamination since the 1980s,” says Amy Mall, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. “It is essential to have a federal minimum standard and federal oversight to ensure every state is reaching the most basic level of protection,” she says.

In response to these concerns, bicameral legislation was introduced on June 9 that would give the Environmental Protection Agency authority to regulate hydraulic fracturing under the Safe Drinking Water Act, a 1974 law that protects tap water from contamination. The bills also require disclosure of the chemical additives used in the drilling process.

The Fracturing Responsibility & Awareness of Chemicals Act of 2009 (H.R. 2766, S. 1215) was proposed by Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), and Jared Polis (D-Colo.) in the House and by Sens. Robert Casey (D-Pa.) and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) in the Senate.

“Many new sources of energy, including natural gas, will play an important role in our nation’s transition to cleaner fuels, but we must make sure this isn’t at the expense of public health,” Polis said in a statement announcing the legislation.

“The problem is not natural gas or even hydraulic fracturing itself,” Polis added. “The problem is that dangerous chemicals are being injected into the earth, polluting our water sources, without any oversight whatsoever.”

The sponsors say most of the evidence of drinking-water contamination is anecdotal because state and local officials don’t know what chemicals are being used in the fracturing process.

“When it comes to protecting the public’s health, it’s not unreasonable to require these companies to disclose the chemicals they are using in our communities, especially near our water sources,” DeGette remarked.

All other industries must meet federal drinking-water standards to ensure that groundwater does not become tainted with harmful substances, Hinchey said. “Our legislation says everyone deserves to have safe drinking water by ensuring that hydraulic fracturing is subject to the protections afforded by the Safe Drinking Water Act.”

Casey said he is supporting the legislation “to safeguard the drinking-water wells used by 3 million Pennsylvanians.” Industry has begun to develop the Marcellus Shale, a massive layer of thick black rock about 6,000 feet below parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and New York.

Geologists at Pennsylvania State University estimate that the 54,000-sq-mile area contains nearly 500 trillion cu ft of natural gas, enough to supply the entire U.S. for 19 years.

“We already have private wells contaminated by gas and fluids used in hydraulic fracturing,” Casey said. “We need to make sure that this doesn’t become a statewide problem over the next few decades as we extract natural gas.”

Industry officials say a federal law is unnecessary. They argue that not a single case of hydraulic-fracturing-related water contamination has ever been documented by the federal government. A study issued by EPA in 2004 concludes that the drilling technique poses “no threat” to underground drinking-water supplies.

“The legislation introduced in Congress is based on the notion that hydraulic fracturing is unsafe, unregulated, and that it benefits from a special exemption to federal law. Not a single one of these premises is true,” says Lee Fuller, policy director for Energy In Depth, a coalition of oil and natural gas industry trade groups.

“What is true,” Fuller continues, “is that hydraulic fracturing has been used for more than 60 years to access and produce oil and gas resources that would have otherwise remained trapped under miles of rock and that it’s been regulated assiduously by the states for at least that long.”

At a recent congressional hearing, Chesapeake Energy Vice President Mike John acknowledged that the drilling procedure has become “somewhat controversial,” but he said that it is safely used on nearly all producing natural gas wells drilled today.

“It is very important to reiterate that these deep-shale formations exist thousands of feet below the land surface and are separated from freshwater supplies by layers of steel casing, protected by concrete barriers, as well as millions of tons of hard, dense, solid-rock geologic formations,” John told the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy & Mineral Resources.

The industry also argues that the legislation would add a duplicative layer of federal oversight to drilling and impose a financial burden on energy producers. “This bill will destroy Pennsylvania’s shallow-gas industry and cripple the development of the Marcellus Shale,” says Stephen W. Rhoads, president of the Pennsylvania Oil & Gas Association.

In 2008, Rhoads notes, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued nearly 8,000 well permits to regulate how wells are drilled, cased, and cemented to protect groundwater from operations such as hydraulic fracturing.

The legislation would require operators to get new federal underground injection control permits from EPA for the exact procedure regulated by every well permit issued by the Pennsylvania DEP, he says.

“Pennsylvania’s operators can’t afford the expense and delays created by two layers of permitting for the same activities,” Rhoads asserts. “The marginal economics of Pennsylvania’s shallow-gas wells could not sustain the excessive regulatory costs that the new federal permit would impose, and operators would simply be forced to stop drilling.”

Complying with the Safe Drinking Water Act’s underground injection control requirements would add about $100,000 to the cost of each new natural gas well in the U.S., according to Richard L. Ranger, a senior policy analyst at the American Petroleum Institute, an oil and gas industry trade group. That additional cost could discourage new drilling and jeopardize the development of deep-shale energy resources, he says.

But drilling companies “use a witch’s brew of toxic chemicals, nearly all of which are intrinsically dangerous to the environment,” Albert F. Appleton, former commissioner of the New York City DEP, testified at the House hearing.

The compounds are dangerous, he said, because they do not biodegrade. “Once in the environment, they stay in the environment. Most of them bioaccumulate,” said Appleton, who is now an infrastructure and environmental consultant.

Shale gas drilling is “completely inappropriate” in any area that is a major drinking-water source, he maintained. The industry could help make shale gas extraction more sustainable, Appleton suggested, by developing “nontoxic and biodegradable additives.”

Although drilling companies guard the precise recipes of their fracturing fluids as proprietary information, some states, such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Colorado, require the industry to provide an inventory of chemical ingredients.

“These chemicals are not secret,” says Lou D’Amico, executive director of the Independent Oil & Gas Association of Pennsylvania. “In fact, the chemicals are used in incredibly diluted forms, making up approximately less than 0.05% of the sand/water mix injected into the well.”

DeGette and other critics maintain, however, that federal disclosure is needed because state regulations vary widely and do not adequately protect water resources, which cross state lines.

“The legislation simply requires the oil and gas industry to follow the same rules as everyone else by complying with the Safe Drinking Water Act and disclose the chemicals they use just like every other industry,” DeGette said.


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