A Frackin' Mess!

by Yee Huang

June 15, 2009

It’s a frackin’ mess out there in the world of natural gas extraction – exploding houses and water wells, dying cattle, and curious rashes.  The Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources of the House Natural Resources Committee recently held a hearing to explore the risks of hydraulic fracturing, or fracing (sometimes spelled, “fracking”), which is currently exempt from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.  Representatives Diana DeGette (D-CO), Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), and Jared Polis (D-CO) introduced a bill to close the exemption, known as the “Halliburton Loophole,” secured by the eponymous company under the Bush-Cheney Administration in 2005.  The proposed bill would also require the industry – the only industry exempt from the nation’s Safe Drinking Water Act – to disclose the chemicals used in fracing.

The hydraulic fracturing process is used in most natural gas wells.  A highly pressurized solution of water, sand, and chemicals are injected into wells that extend thousands of feet into the earth’s crust, creating fissures in the layer of shale where natural gas can flow upward to be collected. 
Among the chemicals used in fracing is benzene, which was found in water bodies in Colorado and Wyoming and linked to gas drilling.  In an extreme case, a house in Bainbridge, Ohio, exploded when the neighborhood water accumulated so much methane that the house lifted off its foundation.  A later study by a state agency concluded that pressure caused by fracing pushed the gas into the aquifer.  Industries refuse to disclose the chemicals in their fracing solutions, claiming that the information is proprietary and akin to revealing the formula to Coca-Cola. 

Natural gas is an important source of energy in the United States; compared to oil, it emits 23% less carbon dioxide per unit of energy.  Natural gas, found in abundance across the United States, is unquestionably here to stay.

The lack of federal regulation of the process, though, raises questions.  The Safe Drinking Water Act, the nation’s primary law for maintaining drinking water quality, requires the EPA to set national health-based standards for contaminants that are or may be present in drinking water and to set regulations for state underground injection control programs.  However, the Act explicitly exempts from the definition of underground injections “the underground injection of fluids or propping agents (other than diesel fuels) pursuant to hydraulic fracturing operations related to oil, gas, or geothermal activities.”  (42 U.S.C. 300h(d)(1)(B)(ii)). 

Yes, air traffic control, fly that 747 right through the loophole.  Roger that.

At the subcommittee hearing, the industry representatives insisted that state regulations are sufficient and bemoaned the potentially apocalyptic economic impact of new federal regulations.  Despite a recent report by the Groundwater Protection Council, an industry-sponsored organization, that concluded existing state regulations are sufficient, state regulations are inconsistent.  Only Alabama has specific protections, based on a 1997 court order, and only Colorado sets standards for chemical disclosure.  Few states have banned the use of hazardous fluids.

In addition to eliminating the fracing loophole, the proposed bill would require natural gas companies to disclose the chemicals used in extraction.  As noted by CPR Member Scholar Cliff Rechtschaffen, information disclosure in a popular tool to achieve environmental objectives supported by both economists and environmentalists.   According to Rechtschaffen, economists support disclosure because it relies on efficient market forces to achieve the desired outcome; environmentalists support disclosure because few incentives are as powerful as the public spotlight and poor publicity.  At the very least, companies should be required to disclose the information to the Environmental Protection Agency, which can then conduct studies on the impacts of these chemicals in the groundwater.

Groundwater is a vital source of drinking water for millions of households in the United States.  It's time to close the fracing loophole.

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