Thursday, November 20, 2008

Does natural gas drilling endanger water supplies?

Abraham Lustgarten writes an article for Businessweek on the increasing suspicions that natural gas drilling is introducing toxic chemicals into groundwater.

There is abundant natural gas in the domestic United States locked in underground shale formations. The shale must be shattered to release the gas.

Chesapeake, Halliburton, and others in the energy industry say hydraulic fracturing is entirely safe. They point to the 2004 EPA study concluding that the process was not dangerous and did not warrant further study. Fracturing fluids aren't necessarily hazardous, can't travel far underground, and there is "no unequivocal evidence" of a health risk, the EPA concluded.

The report's release followed years of industry lobbying to limit study of hydraulic fracturing. After the EPA's study, Congress in 2005 exempted hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act. That effectively eliminated EPA jurisdiction over the drilling technique and left oversight to state regulators and, in the case of federally owned land, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency often characterized as friendly to industry.

"I think fracturing has been given a clean bill of health," contends Kenneth A. Wonstolen, an attorney who represents the Colorado Oil & Gas Assn. "You have intervening rock in between the area that you are fracturing and the areas that provide water supplies. The notion that fractures are going to migrate up to those shallow formations—there is just no evidence of that happening."

The problem should be immediately obvious: the Bush administration as a whole was in complete denial about any sort of environmental problem. Congress in 2005 was full of conservative Republicans and the EPA's administration ignored its own scientists when it released the study:

The industry relies heavily on the 2004 EPA study. But that 424-page report's conclusions appear, on close examination, to ignore some of its own findings. The report actually notes that fracturing fluids migrated unpredictably through rock layers in half the cases studied in the U.S. The agency characterized some of the chemicals as biocides and lubricants that "can cause kidney, liver, heart, blood, and brain damage through prolonged or repeated exposure." The report also noted that as much as a third of injected fluids used in hydraulic fracturing remains in the ground and is "likely to be transported by groundwater."

In connection with the report's release, service companies voluntarily agreed to stop using diesel fuel in fracturing fluid because it is one possible source of benzene. But that agreement, according to the EPA, isn't legally enforceable, and the agency acknowledges that it hasn't checked to see whether diesel is still being used.

Top officials at the agency's headquarters in Washington stand by the study's conclusions, says Roy Simon, associate chief of the Prevention Branch of the EPA's Drinking Water Protection Div. "Since the agency has not conducted a more comprehensive study for all hydraulic fracturing, we do not have further opinion," Simon explains in an e-mail. Asked whether the EPA can confidently say that drilling is safe, Simon adds: "The EPA does not deny that oil and gas production can result in the types of complaints noted in your examples. However, addressing these types of complaints, including hydraulic fracturing and its associated fluids (other than diesel fuel), is beyond the authorities of the Safe Drinking Water Act."

One of the report's three main authors, Jeffrey Jollie, an EPA staff hydrogeologist, cautions that the study was narrowly focused and has been misconstrued by the gas-drilling industry. The study looked at the effects of fracturing in so-called coalbed methane deposits; it did not consider the above-ground impact of drilling or what goes on in many of the large new gas reserves being developed today.

"It was never intended to be a broad, sweeping study," Jollie says. "I don't think we ever characterized it that way."

Companies aren't yet required to release data on the chemicals they use in hydraulic fracturing. However, there are a growing number of unexplained releases of toxic chemicals in groundwater:

n June a rancher in Parachute, Colo., was hospitalized after he drank well water from his tap. Tests showed benzene in his water. The Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission blamed four gas operators in the area for spilling waste fluids. An investigation is continuing.

Pointing to such episodes, several experts in the EPA's regional office in Denver have begun to raise questions about the agency's conclusion in its 2004 report that hydraulic fracturing is safe. "We've kind of reached the tipping point where the impacts are there," says Joyel Dhieux, an EPA scientist in Denver who reviews the effects of industrial projects.

In rural Sublette County, Wyo., an area the size of Connecticut with two mountain ranges but no stoplights, recent testing by federal and state officials near one of the nation's largest gas fields found 88 contaminated water wells stretching over 28 miles. Fifteen contained benzene, in one case at more than 1,500 times the amount the EPA says is safe, according to the Bureau of Land Management. Wyoming regulators and the BLM, which both assessed the situation, minimize the significance of the contamination. They attribute the spills to leaky trucks, saying improved valves would address the problem.

But the EPA's Denver-based regional water expert, Gregory Oberley, isn't convinced: "You've got benzene in a usable aquifer, and nobody is able to verbalize well, using factual information, how the benzene got there." In written statements, regional EPA officials formally rebuked the BLM for not requiring a more thorough cleanup and investigation of the contamination. In September, the BLM approved 4,400 new wells in Sublette County.

The US Constitution requires just compensation for any regulatory taking - this could be a state using its eminent domain power to take land, or forcing a company to disclose a proprietary formula. That legal barrier could possibly be overcome if there was sufficient evidence. However, some people have done their own detective work:

A list of some of the ingredients for fracturing fluids has been pieced together by environmentalists and regulators who have scoured drillers' patent applications and government records, such as worker-safety forms required by the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration. Of the more than 300 chemicals thought to be in use by drillers, more than 60 are listed as hazardous by the federal government.

But the exact recipes drillers use, including chemical concentrations and volumes, aren't publicly known. Researchers say that without that information, they can't vouch for the safety of the drilling process or precisely track the effects of hydraulic fracturing. "I am looking more and more at water- quality issues [related to natural-gas drilling]," says the EPA's Dhieux. "But if you don't know what's in [the fracturing fluid], I don't think it's possible."

This is an emerging issue of environmental justice that the US will have to address. US law does not adequately protect the public from companies polluting the air or groundwater. This situation is intolerable. The public health should not be sacrificed for profit - and if the industry is right that they aren't endangering the public's health, they would have nothing to hide by showing everyone.

Editor's Note: Lustgarten is a reporter with ProPublica, a nonprofit journalism organization in New York. For more on the controversy surrounding natural-gas drilling, go to or to Businessweek.

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