Fracking Disclosure Pursued on Different Fronts

Published: June 13, 2011
Hydraulic fracturing is a process where sand and fluids are pumped underground at very high pressure to cause tiny fissures in rock and force natural gas to the surface. Although most of the fluid is water, numerous chemicals, many of them toxic, are typically added to the mixture. Fracking fluid is known to often contain benzene, toluene, and pesticides, among other harmful substances.

Fracking has been intensely debated for years by citizens, lawmakers, and industry. At the heart of the debate is whether the procedure is safe and whether policymakers are taking the appropriate precautions – at federal, state, and local levels – to protect America’s water supply from fracking contamination.

Is Fracking Safe?

Opponents of fracking, including residents who live near drilling wells, contend that the process is not safe, and that, in particular, the process has poisoned drinking water and affected people’s health. In addition, accidents at wells have led to fires and fracking fluids have reached streams. In April, Chesapeake Energy suspended fracking operations in Pennsylvania after thousands of gallons of drilling fluid spilled following an accident at a gas well.

A peer-reviewed scientific study, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, referred to as the Duke study, linked hydraulic fracturing to cases of drinking water contamination “so severe that some faucets can be lit on fire.” The study examined groundwater obtained from 68 wells throughout Pennsylvania and New York, finding that shallow drinking water systems within 1,000 meters of active natural gas drilling had methane levels 17 times higher than fresh water aquifers further away from active drilling sites. The study reinforces the findings of a 2009 investigation by ProPublica that revealed that methane contamination from fracking was widespread.

Proponents of fracking, primarily the oil and gas industry, insist that the procedure is safe and stress that it has opened up vast new supplies of natural gas that will reduce imports of the fuel. The natural gas and oil industry denies that any evidence exists that fracking contaminates or in any way endangers water supplies. Fracking supporters contend that the Duke study does not link water contamination to fracking fluids, but rather it shows that some well casings are faulty.

Despite industry’s continued assertion that fracking is safe, shareholders have begun to call for disclosure of the practice’s environmental impacts. At the May 25 shareholders’ meetings of both ExxonMobil and Chevron, proposals requiring disclosure on the impacts of fracking received 40 percent of votes by shareholders at Chevron and 30 percent of votes by ExxonMobil shareholders. Referring to the Chevron vote, “Breaking 40 percent on a first year resolution has only happened a few times in the last few decades, so it shows how seriously the company’s shareholders are taking this issue,” said Michael Passoff of As You Sow, an advocacy organization that supported the resolutions at the two companies.

Do Federal Safeguards Exist?

Currently, industry enjoys an exemption from a regulation under a federal drinking water statute; this exemption permits companies to maintain secrecy around the chemicals used in fracking. In most cases, the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) authorizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate the injection of fluids underground and limit pollution levels in drinking water. However, the 2005 Energy Policy Act stripped the EPA of its authority to monitor hydraulic fracturing, making it the only industry to benefit from such an exemption. Without the authority of the SDWA, EPA scientists are unable to analyze the chemicals, processes, and health and environmental effects of fracking.

In light of mounting concerns about the environmental and health impacts of fracking, congressional Democrats introduced the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act (FRAC Act) in both the House and Senate on March 15. The FRAC Act would amend the SDWA and mandate full disclosure of fracking chemicals. Prior to that, Congress ordered the EPA in 2010 to conduct a study of the practices and environmental impacts of fracking, particularly on groundwater. The EPA has stated that the initial results will be made public by the end of 2012, with a final report released in 2014. The agency’s 2004 study on fracking, which declared that the process was safe, was widely criticized as flawed and exaggerated, particularly by the EPA official who oversaw the study. That study enabled passage of 2005 energy legislation exempting fracking from federal regulation under the SDWA.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on May 24 on energy policy and production. In her testimony, Jackson committed the EPA to “step in to protect local residents if a driller jeopardizes clean water and the state government does not act.” She received both criticism and praise for her testimony.

In particular, in response to a question from Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) regarding any evidence that hydraulic fracturing can affect water supplies, Jackson said, “There is evidence that it can certainly affect them. I am not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself affected water, although there are investigations ongoing.” Opponents of fracking started an online petition calling for Jackson to retract the comment and apologize for the misleading statement.

She received praise from fracking supporters, including Republicans who made the first part of her statement a talking point to argue that effective safeguards are already in place. In a press release posted on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works website, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), ranking member of the committee, commended Jackson’s comments and pointed out that “…States are regulating hydraulic fracturing effectively and efficiently, and there is no need for the federal government to step in.”

After a series of high-profile natural gas drilling spills, President Obama in early May asked the U.S. Department of Energy to form an expert panel to identify any immediate steps to “improve the safety and environmental performance” of fracking. The panel, which includes academic, environmental, and industry experts, will report those steps within 90 days of beginning its work. The panel’s goal is to develop advice for the government within six months.

What Can States Do?

With the absence of federal regulation, states have begun requiring the disclosure of chemicals used in fracking fluid. A bill requiring natural gas drillers to publicly disclose the chemicals they use in hydraulic fracturing passed the Texas Senate after an attempt that would delay part of its implementation was defeated. Unlike other states, including Michigan and Wyoming, that have passed laws regulating the fracking process, Texas would be the first to impose a full disclosure requirement.

New disclosure rules in Michigan, announced by its Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), will require natural gas companies to document their water use and to report the total volume of the water they recover from the wells they pump. The DEQ will publish some information about the chemicals used in the fracking process, requiring companies to disclose all Material Safety Data Sheets, and will post that data on the department’s website for public review.

Wyoming was the first state to require the disclosure of chemicals used in fracking fluid. Following Wyoming’s lead, other states have proposed similar rules, including California, which is considering a bill that would require companies to disclose information to a state supervisor who would later post it on a website.

Pennsylvania has proposed legislation that would require companies to disclose chemical information to the state but not necessarily the public. In Arkansas, a fracking disclosure bill was presented and withdrawn. The rules and legislation proposed in most of the states are similar: companies that use hydraulic fracturing must disclose some or all of the contents of the fracking fluids pumped underground.

Other states, such as New York and New Jersey, have taken an extra step and are pursuing moratoriums on fracking operations. In November 2010, New York imposed a statewide moratorium on fracking while a comprehensive review of the practice is undertaken. In March, New Jersey lawmakers advanced legislation that would make the state the first to permanently ban fracking.

Are We Alone?

Neither the practice of fracking nor the concerns about the impacts of the activity are limited to the United States. The French National Assembly approved legislation on May 12 that would ban fracking. If passed by that country’s Senate, France could become the first nation to ban fracking altogether.

Image in teaser by flickr user arimoore, used under a Creative Commons license.

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