Four legislators from Colorado, New York and Pennsylvania have introduced a bill making hydraulic fracturing subject to regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Safe Water Drinking Act. Dubbed the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act, or FRAC Act (
FRAC Act.pdf), the bill would amend the Safe Drinking Water Act to require companies to disclose the chemicals they use in their fracturing processes. The press release (
Press Release FRAC Act.pdf) from the legislators states that “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.” (Benzene and toluene are not additives to frac fluid.)
An energy lobbying group, Energy in Depth, has denounced the bill as an “unnecessary financial burden” on the industry which could result in more than half of U.S. oil wells and one-third of gas wells being closed, and reduction in natural gas production of up to 245 billion cubic feet per year.
The FRAC Act appears to be a reaction to the development of shale gas, which requires extensive hydraulic fracturing and is taking place in urbanized areas in Texas, Pennsylvania and New York, and a series of incidents across the country in which underground fresh water appears to have been contaminated by oil and gas operations.
A house exploded in late 2007 near Cleveland, Ohio after gas seeped into its water well. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources issued a 153-page report blaming a nearby gas well’s faulty casing and hydraulic fracturing for causing the seep.
In Dimock, Pennsylvania, several drinking water wells have been contaminated with methane, and some have exploded. In February, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection charged Cabot Oil & Gas with two violations it says caused the contamination.
After gas contamination showed up in water wells in Garfield County, Colorado, local officials financed a three-year study examining the connection between the contamination and gas wells being drilled by Encana in the area. The study found that gas and wastewater from drilling was making its way into drinking water.
After an area near Cleburne, Texas, in the Barnett Shale field, experienced 15 minor earthquakes over the last seven months, Cliff Frolich, a geophysicist at the Institue for Geophysics at the University of Texas at Austin, said that it is possible that the eartquakes are related to the Barnett Shale production.
(For more on these stories, see Pro Publica website.)
Texas Railroad Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones told the Fort Worth Business Press that she will actively oppose the FRAC Act. “Hydraulic fracturing isn’t new technology but proven technology. The proof is in the pudding: we have had no instances of contamination and it has been used for 60 years.”
It seems to me that several issues are being confused in this debate. The contamination reported in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Colorado may have nothing to do with hydraulic fracturing, but appears more likely to be a result of poor well casing, improper well completions, or unique geology in those areas. It is not clear how disclosure of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, which appears to be the main intent of the FRAC Act, will prevent any contamination caused by the fracturing (although it might allow investigators to determine whether contamination is caused by fracturing). And, finally, it is not clear why disclosure of the chemical content of frac fluid would reduce drilling activity. Nor does the proposed law necessarily require federal regulatory intrusion into the industry. Where the Safe Drinking Water Act does apply, the EPA generally delegates authority for implementing regulations to enforce the act to state agencies who already regulate the oil and gas industry. It may be that the real outcry against the FRAC Act is its requirement to disclose proprietary information – the chemical content of the frac fluid.
For a good discussion of this issue, see this site.