The drinking water in some 19 states may have been rendered less than safe for, well, drinking due to a controversial oil drilling technique called fracking. A recent Congressional investigation reveals that no oil and gas companies have gotten permits for using diesel fuel for fracking in an apparent violation of the Safe Water Drinking Act of 1974, and with unknown effects on public health.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves the high-pressure injection of water, sand, and chemical additives including diesel fuel (which helps to dissolve other chemicals into the fluid) into a well, far below the earth’s surface. Fissures are created and propped up in the rock formations so that natural gas and oil can more readily flow out of the well. But environmentalists and regulators have become increasingly concerned that the fracking chemicals—including toluene, xylene and benzene, a carcinogen, which are all from diesel gas—are seeping out into underground sources of drinking water, in violation of the Safe Water Drinking Act.
In a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency on Monday, Congressional investigators charged that fracking violates the Safe Water Drinking Act, the January 31st New York Times reports. From 2005 to 2009, oil and gas service companies including Halliburton, Schlumberger and BJ Services injected 32.2 million gallons of diesel fuel into onshore wells, in 19 states, as Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-CA), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), and Diana DeGette (D-CO) write in the letter:
According to EPA, any company that performs hydraulic fracturing using diesel fuel must receive a permit under the Safe Drinking Water Act. We learned that no oil and gas service companies have sought—and no state and federal regulators have issued—permits for diesel fuel use in hydraulic fracturing. This appears to be a violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. It also means that the companies injecting diesel fuel have not performed the environmental reviews required by the law.
A key question is whether the unauthorized injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids containing diesel fuel is adversely affecting drinking water supplies. None of the oil and gas service companies could provide data on whether they performed hydraulic fracturing in or near underground sources of drinking water, telling us that the well operators, not the service companies, track that information. We also asked about diesel fuel use in coalbed methane formations, which tend to be shallower and closer to drinking water sources. The three largest companies—Halliburton, BJ Services, and Schlumberger—told us they have stopped using diesel fuel in coalbed methane formations located in underground sources of drinking water. Three smaller companies reported using a limited volume of products containing diesel in coalbed methane wells but did not provide information on the proximity of these wells to drinking water sources. [my emphases in italics]
The New York Times further notes that, while oil and gas companies have ‘acknowledged using diesel fuel in their fracking fluids,’ they have rejected the charge that doing so was illegal. The companies have instead sought to shift the blame onto the E.P.A. by contending that the agency never ‘properly developed rules and procedures to regulate the use of diesel in fracking, despite a clear grant of authority from Congress over the issue.’
In 2003, three of the largest oil and gas services companies —Halliburton, Schlumberger and BJ Services — signed an agreement with the E.P.A. that was to ‘ curtail the use of diesel in fracking in certain shallow formations.’ A 2004 E.P.A. investigation in 2004 failed to find any threat to drinking water from fracking, but critics charged that this decision was ‘politically motivated.’
And then, in 2005, in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (sometimes referred to as the Bush/Cheney Energy Bill of 2005), Congress amended the Safe Water Drinking Act to exclude oil and gas producers from having to follow certain of its requirements. This act also created the “Halliburton Loophole’ (so-called because former Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney was said to be instrumental in its passage) which exempts companies drilling for natural gas from disclosing the chemicals involved in fracking operations—a disclosure that, under laws such as the Safe Water Drinking Act, would normally be required. These exemptions would be removed under the proposed Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act, which was introduced to both houses of Congress in June of 2009.
The E.P.A. has again started to investigate the issue of fracking’s impact on drinking water last year. Results are not expected until 2012 at the earliest. And in the mean time, who knows what is going on to our water supply, far beneath the earth?
Photo by Marcellus Protest.