February 2010 Archives

February 8, 2010

More Contoversy Over Hydraulic Fracturing

The debate over the safety of hydraulic fracturing continues. The Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based non-profit environmental advocacy organization, has issued a white paper, "Drilling Around the Law," calling for fracking to be regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act and to require public disclosure of chemicals used in frac fluid. The EWG claims that "companies that drill for natural gas and oil are skirting federal law and injecting toxic petroleum distillates into thousands of wells, threatening drinking water supplies from Pennsylvania to Wyoming." EWG claims that fracking has been linked to drinking water contamination and proeprty damage in Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wyoming and other states, citing articles written by Abrahm Lustgarten in ProPublica, another non-profit organization.

Meanwhile, Chesapeake has published on its website a "Fact Sheet" listing the chemicals used in its frac fluids in the Barnett Shale. The list includes "petroleum distillate," which Chesapeake describes as a "friction reducer," describing it as a product "used in cosmetics including hair, make-up, nail and skin products." The website shows that 99.5% of frac fluid is made up of water and sand, and only .5% is made up of additives, including "petroleum distillate." But the site does not show what percentage or volume of "petroleum distillate" or other additives are used in the frac fluid, or what kind of petroleum distillate is being used.

Another energy organization, Energy In Depth, has published a response to the EWG's white paper on fracking, "When Gummy Bears Attack." its author, Chris Tucker, cites data from the U.S. Department of Energy to show that "petroleum distillate" represents .088% of the volume of frack fluid. He says that petroleum distillates are used in lip gloss, sunscreen and gummy bears.

So what is "petroleum distillate"? Purdue University describes "petroleum distillates" as including all products derived from the distillation of petroleum, from diesel fuel to petroleum jelly to waxes and asphalts:

"Petroleum distillates are found in a wide variety of consumer-products including lip gloss, liquid gas, fertilizer, furniture polish, pesticides, plastics, paint thinners, solvents, motor oil, fuels and hundreds of other products. Petroleum distillates listed commonly on labels of general household products are those that distill off around naphthas. Petroleum jelly, a petroleum distillate product, is generally regarded as nontoxic.

"Petroleum distillates contain both aromatic hydrocarbons (carbon rings) and aliphatic hydrocarbons (straight carbon chains). The chemical structure of the hydrocarbon largely defines the nature and behavior of these compounds. Aromatic hydrocarbons are the most toxic compounds found in petroleum products. Most aromatic hydrocarbons are long-term toxins and known cancer causing agents. These aromatic compounds are found in all crude oils and most petroleum products. Many aromatic hydrocarbons have a pleasant odor and include such substances as naphthalene, xylene, toluene, and benzene. Aliphatic hydrocarbons are flammable and may be explosively flammable. Aliphatic hydrocarbons include methane, propane, and kerosene.

"Aliphatics and aromatics pose a special health risk if ingested and vomited. When swallowed, the lighter, more volatile distillate products can be sucked into the lungs interfering with the lung's functions and chemical pneumonia may result. Aspiration of fluid into the lungs can occur both during swallowing and vomiting of the product. Upon skin contact, petroleum distillates can produce local skin irritation and sensitivity to light in some individuals. Environmentally, many of the petroleum distillate products add to smog and water pollution due to improper disposal or during their manufacture and use."

The controversy over frac fluids has made the Wall Street Journal.

The industry claims that hydraulic fracturing is safe and is necessary to tap oil and gas reserves in the U.S. to reduce our dependency on foreign resources. Environmental groups claim that frac fluid can cause contamination of drinking water and should be closely regulated. Much of the debate appears to suffer from a lack of reasonableness and objectivity.