Bills Would Require Disclosure of “Fracking” Chemicals

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Bills recently introduced in both the House and Senate seek to force natural gas drilling companies to disclose what chemicals are pumped into the ground in a practice known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Although the process has been linked to drinking water contamination and other harms to public health and the environment, companies are currently allowed to conceal the toxic chemicals they use.

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.

Currently, the industry enjoys an exemption from regulation under a federal drinking water statute that permits them to maintain secrecy around the chemicals used. Gas drillers and the companies that supply them are attempting to fend off Congress’ efforts to close the loophole and to preserve the confidentiality of the chemicals used, claiming the mixtures are trade secrets. Without the information about the chemicals, scientists are unable to research the potential health effects of hydraulic fracturing.

The legislation, known as the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act, or FRAC Act, specifies that drillers must disclose the identities of the chemicals used in the fracturing fluids. In medical emergencies, even trade secrets must be disclosed, with or without a written statement of need. The Senate version of the bill is sponsored by Pennsylvania Sen. Robert Casey, Jr. (D) and New York’s Charles Schumer (D).

According to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), whose Energy and Commerce Committee is moving the House bill (H.R. 2766), “The current exemption for the oil and gas industry means that we can’t even get the information necessary to evaluate the health threats from these practices.”

The bills remove the oil and gas industry’s exemption from regulation under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), which was granted in a previous, Republican-controlled Congress. The SDWA authorizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate the injection of fluids underground and limits pollution levels in drinking water. The exemption, known as the “Halliburton loophole” for the company that pioneered the process and the influence of its former CEO, Dick Cheney, was inserted into the Energy Policy Act of 2005. No other industry enjoys such a blanket exemption from SDWA regulation. Without the authority of the SDWA, EPA scientists are powerless to analyze the chemicals, processes, and dangers of hydraulic fracturing.

Chemicals used in fracking enter the environment through three main ways. Up to one-third of the fracking fluid is left underground during the process, and this can seep into underground drinking water supplies and the source waters for rivers and lakes. Spills and accidents on the surface can also contaminate water supplies. Finally, the two-thirds of the fluid that is retrieved after being injected underground is waste water that must be disposed, presenting another potential avenue for release into the environment.

Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), one of the House bill’s cosponsors, said, “It’s time to fix an unfortunate chapter in the Bush administration’s energy policy and close the ‘Halliburton loophole’ that has enabled energy companies to pump enormous amounts of toxins, such as benzene and toluene, into the ground that then jeopardize the quality of our drinking water.” Hinchey added, “The bill also lifts the veil of secrecy currently shrouding this industry practice.”

Another House cosponsor, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), announced, “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.”

In DeGette’s home state, Colorado, gas drilling has greatly expanded over the last eight years, and nine Colorado municipalities have already passed resolutions similar to the proposed federal legislation. New state rules in Colorado require gas drillers to give the inventory of chemicals to medical personnel when requested, as well as to state officials. The general public remains barred from access to the information, however.

The federal bills do not require reporting of quantities of fracking fluids used, the amounts of the toxic chemicals used or disposed of, or where the chemicals end up. However, with knowledge of the chemicals themselves and the authority to regulate the process, EPA scientists would be able to track the fate of the fracking fluids and analyze impacts to the environment.

In cases of medical emergencies caused by exposure to fracking chemicals, the legislation gives companies that were forced to disclose proprietary chemical formulas the right to require a confidentiality agreement from the treating nurse or doctor after the emergency. However, it is not clear if the patient must sign a confidentiality agreement, or if the physician is barred from telling the patient what chemicals they have been exposed to. The legislation’s focus on medical emergencies fails to consider or address chronic exposure to fracking chemicals, which could create non-emergency medical situations where disclosure of the chemicals is important.

The industry contends that oil and gas production would drop considerably – threatening the economy and the country’s goal of energy independence – if the legislation becomes law. This argument is made despite industry assertions that the value of the natural gas in just one geologic formation in the northeast would be worth up to one trillion dollars. Opponents of federal regulation also claim that state regulators provide sufficient oversight of fracking operations.

( 06/16/09)

Hinchey pushes for disclosure of chemicals used in natural gas ‘fracking’

Hinchey pushes for disclosure of chemicals used in natural gas ‘fracking’

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WASHINGTON – With interest in drilling for natural gas deposits in Marcellus shale formations in Sullivan and Delaware counties and elsewhere in the Catskills and Southern Tier, New York Rep. Maurice Hinchey Thursday said he would introduce legislature calling for disclosure of the chemicals used in the process.

Hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, is a process of injecting at high pressure chemicals into underground rock formations in order to release natural gas to be captured.

Hinchey and Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette are pushing for disclosure of those chemicals, which they said could include diesel fuel, benzene, industrial solvents and other carcinogens and endocrine disruptors.

DeGette said she supports natural gas drilling, but with safeguards. “I don’t think we should be developing those resources at the potential risk to the public, especially to the risk of their drinking water,” she said. “That’s why I think it’s important that we balance the need for energy development with the need for sensible environmental laws.”

Hinchey, too, wants safeguards in place when drilling and fracking. “To make sure that their wells are not contaminated; to make sure that their water reservoirs are not contaminated and that water continues to be safe and secure.”

Both lawmakers testified before a hearing of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources Thursday.

Seismic testing generates waves of concern

Roadblock for seismic testing thumper trucks?

Seismic testing generates waves of concern


NARROWSBURG, NY — “They create earthquakes underground.” That’s how one official described the activity of thumper trucks, though their actual mission is to engage in seismic testing to help drilling companies understand the makeup of the various layers of materials deep underground.

Essentially, thumper trucks come equipped with a large metal foot, which stomps on the ground. The action creates seismic waves that bounce off the rocks below and are then recorded and measured by instruments on the ground. This information is then sold to drilling companies to help determine the best place to drill for gas or oil.

The Town of Tusten is holding a public hearing on September 29 to hear comments about whether the town should declare a six-month moratorium on seismic testing on the roads of Tusten. The four other towns that are working with Tusten on performing road assessments in advance of what will likely be a lot of gas drilling in the region, are also addressing the issue; the towns are Highland, Delaware, Cochecton and, most recently, Lumberland.

Tusten supervisor Ben Johnson said the testing activity will come before the drilling activity begins, so the town board decided the issue needed to be addressed soon. The fact that a thumper truck operator showed up at the town hall on September 8, seeking a permit to work, added a bit of urgency to the matter.

Johnson said the board would use the six-month moratorium time to write an ordinance that would cover seismic-testing activity.

Johnson said seismic activity has been done in the past with no problem, back in the ’60s and ’70s, but the board wanted to be sure that should any problems arise the town would be protected. Of specific concern is any possible damage to wells or the Narrowsburg sewer system. Also, the board wants to be sure town roads are protected against excessive wear. He added that after the moratorium, a permit will be needed to conduct seismic tests.

Along with possible damage, however, is another question being asked not only here, but in neighboring counties: who actually owns the right to the data gathered by the thumpers. The trucks not only get information from under the road or parcel on which they’re located, but also from neighboring properties.

Farmers in New York’s Southern Tier have been arguing that collecting data from underneath their property without their permission and without compensation is tantamount to theft.

Representatives from the gas companies have argued that the information is similar to gas itself, and that if they can get it out of the ground, it’s there for the taking.

Others say many people are attempting to profit from gas drilling in one way or another, and landowners should be compensated for information taken from under their land, especially information that helps gas companies strike it rich.

Wes Gillingham, program director of Catskill Mountainkeeper, said the information collected by seismic testing could give one side a bargaining advantage. “Suppose you’re a landowner and testing from outside your property shows that you’re in a real sweet spot for drilling. The gas company isn’t going to give you that information, so that would give the gas company an advantage.”

Some people are taking the issue very seriously. According to an article in the Press & Sun-Bulletin, Bradd Vickers, president of the Chenango County Farm Bureau, recently chased away a caravan of thumpers from a road in the Town of Preston after a brief test of wills.

Vickers wants towns to require the testing companies to get permission from landowners as part of the process of getting a permit.

Contributed photo
Thumper trucks like this one take seismic readings of underground features to guide drilling companies in their quest for gas or oil. (Click for larger version)