Last year the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, then chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman, undertook an investigation of the hydrofracking process companies use to pry natural gas from shale and other tight geological formations. Last night, media broke an embargo, so the committee released its report two days ahead of the originally scheduled release on Monday.
One perspective on U.S. government archives
Written by Waxman, Rep. Edward Markey and Rep. Diana DeGette, the report is devastating. It puts an official imprimatur on what critics have been saying for a long time: Energy companies are engaging in reckless disregard for how fracking may affect the environment and human health, they themselves don't know all the chemicals they're using, and they are resisting effective regulation. But, as always, the question is what will be done about what the committee's investigators have reported. They themselves made no recommendations. Is their investigation headed, like so many government reports, for a shelf deep in some archive like that revealed in the final scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark
The crux of the report:
Between 2005 and 2009, the 14 oil and gas service companies used more than 2,500 hydraulic fracturing products containing 750 chemicals and other components. Overall, these companies used 780 million gallons of hydraulic fracturing products – not including water added at the well site – between 2005 and 2009.
Some of the components used in the hydraulic fracturing products were common and generally harmless, such as salt and citric acid. Some were unexpected, such as instant coffee and walnut hulls. And some were extremely toxic, such as benzene and lead. Appendix A lists each of the 750 chemicals and other components used in hydraulic fracturing products between 2005 and 2009.
The most widely used chemical in hydraulic fracturing during this time period, as measured by the number of compounds containing the chemical, was methanol. Methanol, which was used in 342 hydraulic fracturing products, is a hazardous air pollutant and is on the candidate list for potential regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Some of the other most widely used chemicals were isopropyl alcohol (used in 274 products), 2-butoxyethanol (used in 126 products), and ethylene glycol (used in 119 products).
Between 2005 and 2009, the oil and gas service companies used hydraulic fracturing products containing 29 chemicals that are (1) known or possible human carcinogens, (2) regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act for their risks to human health, or (3) listed as hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act. These 29 chemicals were components of more than 650 different products used in hydraulic fracturing.
The BTEX compounds – benzene, toluene, xylene, and ethylbenzene – appeared in 60 of the hydraulic fracturing products used between 2005 and 2009. Each BTEX compound is a regulated contaminant under the Safe Drinking Water Act and a hazardous air pollutant under the Clean Air Act. Benzene also is a known human carcinogen. The hydraulic fracturing companies injected 11.4 million gallons of products containing at least one BTEX chemical over the five year period.
In many instances, the oil and gas service companies were unable to provide the Committee with a complete chemical makeup of the hydraulic fracturing fluids they used. Between 2005 and 2009, the companies used 94 million gallons of 279 products that contained at least one chemical or component that the manufacturers deemed proprietary or a trade secret. Committee staff requested that these companies disclose this proprietary information. Although some companies did provide information about these proprietary fluids, in most cases the companies stated that they did not have access to proprietary information about products they purchased “off the shelf” from chemical suppliers. In these cases, the companies are injecting
fluids containing chemicals that they themselves cannot identify.
Let me repeat that: Fluids containing chemicals that they themselves cannot identify.
And what is the industry's response? Not much so far. But Ian Urbina at The New York Times wrote Saturday night:
Matt Armstrong, an energy attorney from Bracewell & Giuliani that represents several companies involved in natural gas drilling, faulted the methodology of the congressional report released Saturday and an earlier report by the same lawmakers.
"This report uses the same sleight of hand deployed in the last report on diesel use -- it compiles overall product volumes, not the volumes of the hazardous chemicals contained within those products," he said. "This generates big numbers but provides no context for the use of these chemicals over the many thousands of frac jobs that were conducted within the timeframe of the report."
Here's some context. The Environmental Working Group reported in Drilling Around the Law:
In a worst case scenario, the petroleum distillates used in a single well could contain enough benzene to contaminate more than 100 billion gallons of drinking water to unsafe levels, according to drilling company disclosures in New York State and published studies. (NYDEC DSGEIS 2009, Pagnotto 1961) That is more than 10 times as much water as the state of New York uses in a single day. (NYDEC DSGEIS 2009)
Fracking has already been linked to drinking water contamination and property damage in Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wyoming and other states. (Lustgarten 2008a, 2008b)
Despite the risks, Congress in 2005 exempted hydraulic fracturing, except fracturing with diesel fuel, from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). Diesel is the only substance for which drillers must seek a permit before it is injected underground. (SDWA 2009)
Based on a six-month investigation of chemical disclosure records filed by several of the largest drilling corporations and interviews with regulators in five states, Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that:
1. Companies are injecting natural gas wells with millions of gallons of fracking fluids laced with petroleum distillates that can be similar to diesel and represent an equal or greater threat to water supplies. The distillates typically contain the same highly toxic chemicals as diesel: benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. Distillates disclosed in records analyzed by EWG have been found to contain up to 93 times more benzene than diesel but require no authorization prior to use. ...
And that is just one of the known toxic chemicals involved in fracking.
As Urbina writes, an EPA report on how fracking may be tainting drinking water "has been made more difficult by companies’ unwillingness to publicly disclose which chemicals and in what concentrations they are used." While the industry plans to start a public database of the chemicals, disclosure is voluntary and does not include the identity of those considered. Given the nature of voluntary reporting, there is no way to tell whether companies already skirting regulations will accurately report information about what chemicals they are using and in what amounts.
Last week, there was another leaked report on fracking. This one was written by Robert W. Howarth, Renee Santoro and Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University. They put an arrow through the heart of the argument that natural gas pried from tight formations will make a huge difference in the amount of CO2 emissions compared with the coal that advocates have touted it as being a replacement for:
“The greenhouse gas footprint for shale gas is greater than that for conventional gas or oil when viewed on any time horizon, but particularly so over 20 years. Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20% greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon and is comparable when compared over 100 years… These methane emissions are at least 30% more than and perhaps more than twice as great as those from conventional gas. The higher emissions from shale gas occur at the time wells are hydraulically fractured -- as methane escapes from flow-back return fluids -- and during drill out following the fracturing.”
Since Ronald Reagan gutted research into renewable energy 30 years ago, the United States has been captive to fossil-fuel interests who have done all they can to prevent a full-bore effort dedicated to conservation, improved efficiency and renewables. These days, the focus is on domestic drilling on- and off-shore, production from tar sands, other environment-wrecking "unconventional" sources of oil and natural gas and the chimera of clean coal.
In Congress, Republicans have, of course, been the tip of the spear for this push while sneering and sniping at alternative approaches. But too many Democrats, coal-state Democrats mostly, but others as well, have neither put up obstacles to the fossil-fuel giants nor vigorously supported renewable alternatives. To its credit, the Obama administration has focused more attention on, and provided more funding for, renewables than any administration since Jimmy Carter's. The President's recent speech on energy included some additional indication that this support and funding will continue. But it also gave succor to the fossil-fuel industry, to the deep-water drillers, to clean-coal advocates and to those who say natural gas will rescue us. Down that path is a dead-end.
Persuading Congresspeople, including many members who are progressives except when it comes to energy matters, that they should take a fresh approach is no easy matter. Energy companies fill so many of their pockets with campaign cash. And even those not beholden in that way worry about the jobs associated with the industry, a legitimate concern for both them and us. So persuasion is a step-by-step process. We can press it forward by opening their eyes with documents like the Waxman-Markey-DeGette fracking report and with other studies, such as the recently published A Solar Transition is Possible by Peter D. Schwartzman & David W. Schwartzman.
Of course, persuasion often requires other action as well, from lawsuits to peaceful but not passive confrontation on the front lines.
Comments are closed on this story.