Fractured Logic: The Peril in “Fracking” Chemicals

Environmental Working Group, August 2010

If your family got its water from your own well (and a lot of people do), what would you say to someone who wanted to pump a whole grab-bag of chemicals into the ground nearby, including some that are known to be toxic or to cause cancer?

Just guessing here, but I suspect you’d send him on his way with a few choice words.

You might be slightly reassured if he told you that, actually, he was going to drill a well thousands of feet deep and inject his chemicals into solid rock so that his toxic cocktail would never reach your well water.

But again, just guessing, you’d probably ask a lot of questions and demand some very strong controls and oversight of the process. You might even ask who regulates this stuff to ensure that your water isn’t at risk. It would hardly set your mind at ease to find out that this particular activity has been almost totally exempted from federal laws that are supposed to protect the purity of your, and the nation’s, drinking water.

Remarkably, this little scenario is a pretty fair microcosm of something that is unfolding across the country, from the Northeast to Texas to the far West, with the pell-mell growth of a technology that enables energy companies to capture vast quantities of natural gas locked away in deeply buried shale and other rock. This technology, also used for oil drilling, involves injecting a liquid stew of chemicals, sand and water under very high pressure into underground rock formations. This process, whose technical name is hydraulic fracturing, cracks open the rock and allows trapped gas to escape. “Fracking,” as it is commonly known, is an advance that has been good for energy costs, but it also creates real risks to the nation’s supplies of drinking water. It’s a threat not just for people who have their own wells, but also for major cities such as New York, where everyone is supplied by public waterworks.

EWG Senior Counsel Dusty Horwitt has spent six months looking into the issue. EWG has just issued a report on his findings. Among them:

  • Companies are injecting natural gas wells with millions of gallons of fracking fluids with minimal regulatory supervision to ensure that they don’t get into drinking water supplies.
  • The quantities of fracking fluids used in a single well contain so much benzene and other toxics that they could potentially contaminate more than the amount of water New York state consumes in a day.
  • When Congress exempted fracking from the Safe Water Drinking Act, it drew the line at the use of diesel oil, which contains chemicals that are highly toxic and/or cancer causing, including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. But one officials said use of diesel is still common, and the companies’ own statements suggest that they are still using diesel.
  • Even when drilling companies don’t use diesel, they rely on other “petroleum distillates” that contain many of the same dangerous substances. Records obtained by EWG showed that some fracking fluids have up to 93 times as much benzene as diesel, but no one regulates their use.
  • Major fracking companies repeatedly ignored EWG’s requests for information on the precise nature of their fracking fluid. Horwitt pierced the veil of corporate secrecy by obtaining documents filed by industry with New York state and Pennsylvania officials.
  • At least two state officials, and even one regional federal regulator, apparently misinterpret the Safe Drinking Water Act, insisting that all fracking chemicals, including diesel, are exempt from the law’s permitting requirements. Only in Wyoming are officials keeping an eye on the chemicals being used in fracturing, and even there they require companies to disclose only the trade names of their fluids, not the chemical components. to determine whether drillers are using diesel.

The risks of fracking aren’t just theoretical. Drinking water contamination and property damage have been linked to hydraulic fracturing in four states – Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wyoming. In one incident that polluted a Colorado creek, the drilling company is still trying to clean it up – four years later.

The conclusion is inescapable: the petroleum distillates used in hydraulic fracturing pose a serious threat to the nation’s water supplies, but those risks have been largely ignored by federal and state regulators. So EWG is making several important recommendations for action by Congress and federal agencies, before disaster strikes:

  • Congress must reverse itself and require companies to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act when using hydraulic fracturing.
  • Congress should require drilling companies to disclose publicly the chemicals they use hydraulic fracturing in every well.
  • The U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees drilling on public land, must use its authority to require such disclosures.
  • Congress should investigate federal and state oversight of hydraulic fracturing and insist that federal and state personnel be properly informed about existing law.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should use its powers to find out whether companies are using diesel and enforce the existing permit requirements.