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Energy industry fights chemical disclosure

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"Energy industry fights chemical disclosure"

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Natural gas companies want to prevent oversight of fracking

The oil and natural gas lobby is working hard to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from establishing safeguards to protect the public from chemicals used to produce shale gas through “hydraulic fracturing,” also called “fracking” or “fracing.”  CAP’s Sarah Collins and Tom Kenworthy have the story in this repost.

Oil and gas companies use fracking in combination with horizontal well drilling; the process involves injecting a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals at high pressure into rock formations thousands of feet below the surface to fracture the rock and allow oil and gas previously trapped inside the rock to escape. Recent advances in drilling techniques combined with fracking have dramatically expanded the supply of technically recoverable shale gas. But studies show that the chemicals may pollute nearby sources of water.

BP, ConocoPhillips, and Shell Oil Co.‘s latest lobbying efforts propose adding “Sense of the Senate Language” to upcoming energy and climate legislation from Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) that would exempt fracking from federal oversight. Lee Fuller, executive director of Energy in Depth, a consortium of U.S. oil and natural gas producers, wrote in a recent letter to the senators, “we hope that you can find space in your draft legislation to make your commitment to natural gas explicitly clear”¦to remind your colleagues once again of the critical role that technologies such as hydraulic fracturing can and must play in meeting the goals for our future.”

The proposal would be on top of a similar fracking loophole already on the books. The practice is currently protected from oversight under the Safe Drinking Water Act due to an exemption in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The loophole was added into the bill after a 2004 EPA study found the process posed “little or no threat” to drinking water. Natural gas companies have often cited this study as evidence that the practice is “safe,” but the study was cursory and called “scientifically unsound” by Weston Wilson, an EPA scientist with more than three decades of experience with the agency. The Oil and Gas Accountability Project also reported that, “EPA removed information from earlier drafts that suggested unregulated fracturing poses a threat to human health, and that the Agency did not include information that suggests fracturing fluids may pose a threat to drinking water long after drilling operations are completed.”

An aide for Sen. Kerry has indicated that the three senators have not included the oil companies’ proposal in their draft bill. Sen. Graham also said that there is not yet language to continue to protect fracking included in the bill, but said, “we need to use the fracturing process to get gas. But it needs to be transparent, and we understand the environmental impact of it.”

Hiding the truth on fracking chemicals

The Safe Drinking Water Act loophole isn’t the only exemption natural gas producers enjoy. They are also free from reporting the specific toxic chemicals used for fracking, even though many other industries must report their toxic emissions under the 1986 Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act.

The Right-to-Know Network, a project of OMB Watch, notes: “Studies have identified a long list of toxics that may be included in these fracking fluids, and numerous cases of drinking water contamination have been documented.” A study by Environmental Working Group “found that at least 65 chemicals used by the natural gas industry in Colorado””many of them used in hydraulic fracturing””were listed or regulated as hazardous substances under six federal statues including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Superfund.” And the OGAP report found that, “The EPA states that many chemicals in hydraulic fracturing fluids are linked to human health effects. These effects include cancer; liver, kidney, brain, respiratory and skin disorders; birth defects; and other health problems.”

The natural gas industry’s most common defense to these claims it that fracking fluid mostly consists of water and less than 1 percent is chemicals. Yet OGAP reports that, “The draft EPA study included calculations showing that even when diluted with water at least nine hydraulic fracturing chemicals may be injected into [underground sources of drinking water] at concentrations that pose a threat to human health.” Of course, this fact never made it into the final EPA report that led to the fracking exemption.

Homeowners and communities adjacent to natural gas production facilities that employ fracking have the right to know about the toxic chemicals used at these sites. And without information from the natural gas industry on what chemicals it uses, it will be impossible to conclusively state that the practice poses no danger.

The issue of public disclosure is not an idle debate without public health consequences. Congress need look no further than a 2008 Colorado case, where an emergency room nurse was sickened and nearly died after she treated an oil and gas worker whose clothes were soaked with fracking fluids. The nurse, Cathy Behr, said the physician who treated her was unable to get information on the chemicals she was exposed to and had to guess. “It was the right guess, because slowly I started getting better,” Behr told the Durango Herald.

Some companies work to change, others fight it

Some natural gas companies, notably Chesapeake Energy Corp., Range Resources Corp., and Schlumberger Ltd, have expressed a willingness to disclose the chemicals used in fracking. Announcements by CEOs of Chesapeake Energy and Range Resources on the need to make this information public followed twin events that bore ill tidings for the industry: spills at drilling sites in Pennsylvania and proposals for new regulations in New York.

About 30 gas operators are already sharing data with the state Department of Environmental Protection in Pennsylvania. Although ProPublica notes that they “don’t list all the ingredients or explain how they might be combined, information that environmental scientists say is critical to measuring the risk associated with fracturing fluids.”

Other firms, such as Devon Energy Corp., Southwestern Energy Corps., and Newfield Exploration Co., are “exploring ways to recycle waste water, use nontoxic chemicals for drilling and eliminate the need for some chemicals altogether.”

Yet much of the natural gas industry continues to fight reasonable measures to protect the public health and environment. The industry claims that state regulation of hydraulic fracturing is sufficient but at the same time they fight more effective state oversight. Colorado recently added new oil and gas drilling rules that require companies to disclose fracking chemicals to the state, for example, and the industry is suing to overturn the new rules.

Conclusion

Natural gas producers should be required to make public and accessible information on the chemical components of fracking fluids rather than perpetuating the existing exemptions from the Right-to-Know program.

Many gas producers are concerned that this would reveal their trade secrets, but the TRI program has a process to protect such proprietary information without forcing them to reveal trade secrets. And the EPA has acknowledged the need to deal with trade secrets in TRI submissions. And even if the EPA approves an industry’s claim of trade secrecy, there is still a provision to protect public health by allowing states to identify the health effects associated with the chemicals and make that information public.

Natural gas emits half of the carbon dioxide pollution compared to coal and can serve as a bridge fuel to a lower-carbon future. Processes that make shale gas production possible, such as fracking, can help speed this transition. But we need to pursue this cleaner energy future in a sustainable manner that does not come at the expense of public health.

Sarah Collins is an intern on CAP’s Energy Opportunity Team and Tom Kenworthy is a CAP senior fellow.

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13 Responses to Energy industry fights chemical disclosure

  1. Jeff Huggins says:

    OK, let’s see: Would you want chemicals that are manufactured by chemical companies, oil companies, drilling companies, and the like to be in your drinking water?

    Oops, I forgot to tell you: Some of them have been linked to various forms of cancer, birth defects, and other health issues.

    What sorts of crazies are we these days?

    Imagine this: Folks very much like this Don B guy, who puts miners in deep holes, doesn’t worry about safety problems, and gets two dozen of them blown up, would be putting chemicals into drilling fluids and pouring those fluids into the ground, where they most likely will eventually end up in the underground flows of water and thus in lakes, the sea, in your cup, in your innards, and in your children.

    I was a chemical engineer from U.C. Berkeley, and I’ve worked in the oil industry, and I can tell you with complete confidence: That plan does NOT sound like a good idea.

    The issue is not that we should know (via transparency) what chemicals are being put in the ground and what chemicals slowly appear in our drinking water, lakes, streams, and oceans. The issue is that such chemicals should not be put in the ground, where they have any chance of getting into the water system, in the first place. “Transparency” doesn’t exist for its own sake. For example, murder isn’t OK as long as it’s “transparent” and we all know about it. No. Transparency exists, in the first place, so that we can make sure we prevent things that shouldn’t occur. It’s not sufficient to know that weird chemicals are in your drinking water and lakes and so forth. (Take it from me: a fellow human who also happens to have been a chemical engineer.) The point is to keep weird chemicals OUT of the water system.

    This whole notion of “we MUST have oil” and “we MUST have gas” and “we must do such-and-so as a transition” is patently “bad thinking” if it leads us into accepting stuff like this. Again: bad thinking.

    Do you want Don Blankenship-types, or Rex Tillerson-types, deciding what chemicals to put into the ground — into deep and open holes, in the porous ground, where they can mix with the water system?

    If any politician — Democrat or Republican — votes for exceptions that allow stuff like that, I will simply vote for the other party.

    Also, I’d like to ask about CAP’s stance on this: Is CAP suggesting that “transparency” is the aim and that such compromises have to be made because we “need” fracking to get the hydrocarbons that we also “need”? Or, is it CAP’s stance that we should avoid putting such chemicals into the ground-water system, period? Please let us know. Thanks.

    Sigh,

    Jeff

  2. John McCormick says:

    Sarah and Tom, great reporting effort here. Lots of useful information and links. Thanks for a great report.

    John McCormick

  3. Jeff Huggins says:

    Sarah and Tom …

    I agree with John McCormick, in Comment 2, (and probably many other folks), that your report is great and helpful. Great work!

    The points I made in my Comment 1 — and the frustration I expressed — have to do with what the oil and gas companies seem to want, as well as with what some politicians might want to allow them to do.

    One question, however: What is the net advantage of putting weird chemicals in the fracking fluid? In other words, what would happen if the companies were required to only use clean water, sand, and entirely natural ingredients — salt or Mayonnaise or a 1959 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, for that matter (although that would seem like a waste!)? After all, the process is meant to fracture rock.

    Something tells me that these chemicals are probably NOT really “necessary”. In other words, they might be in the fluid in order to make maintenance on the equipment a bit easier, or perhaps to allow lower pressures to be used, or perhaps to improve the ultimate yield by a few percent, or whatever. But, those are purely economic considerations, not “necessities”. In other words, I doubt (very much) that it’s the case that fracking would need to cease, and that we would not have access to the hydrocarbons (not that we should really want them, but that’s another matter) if companies were required to avoid the use of any non-natural chemicals in the fracking fluid. The companies seem to make it sound like “we need fracking, so we need these chemicals”, but I doubt that is really the case. It probably boils down to economics and profit. And, either way, we should not be putting such chemicals into the ground.

    Could you please find out what the real, credible, confident answer to that question is? Of course, don’t only ask the companies. Please ask at least two or three highly competent scientists and engineers, from universities that are not dependent on oil and gas companies, to get the answer.

    It seems to me that this is an important question. The politicians should not be fooled into believing that the choice is either to approve putting nasty chemicals into the ground OR to not have access to these energy resources. Nor should anyone believe that states themselves can, or will, regulate this stuff sufficiently. The simple answer is: no chemicals. I bet you’ll see that the companies will come up with a way to do the fracking without the chemicals in question. It may cost them a bit more, but so be it. That’s as it should be. Do we want to “sell” the quality of our drinking water, lakes, streams, and seas to oil and gas companies? No.

    Cheers, and thanks for the great article,

    Jeff

  4. John McCormick says:

    Sarah, Tom and Joe,

    Jeff asked you some excellent questions and the answers are out there and are not proprietary. Maybe EPA can lead you to some answers and we need them quickly.

    John McCormick

  5. Tammy Skillings says:

    The energy industry has been invoolved with fracs of many kinds for 60 years. It is recently the city slikers that are greenies have heard about it. They don’t frac at the water table. It may be two miles below. Petroleum engineers work with this. This is another article from CAP which is loaded with clueless folks that mean well and don’t understand the Oil industry.

  6. Jeff Huggins says:

    To Tammy Skillings (Comment 5) …

    Tammy, I’m not a petroleum engineer or an expert on fracs. (As a chem eng from long ago, I’ve taken a petroleum engineering class, have done research on flows of emulsions through porous media, and have spent a good deal of time in oil fields, but this of course doesn’t make me an expert in any sense, admittedly.)

    Yet, in my view, it’s probably safe to say that whatever goes into any hole in the ground, at any depth, can somehow eventually end up in the water system. It’s a risk.

    The EPA seems to have found traces of such chemicals or, at least, thinks (and rightly so) that such risks exist.

    Why is the industry even concerned about the EPA’s involvement if there is no chance that such chemicals can end up in the water system? And, why is the industry against the EPA’s involvement, based on the argument that the states can handle the matter, while the industry is also suing (in at least one case) to avoid a set of state regulations on the matter? It all seems very inconsistent, and inconsistency seems to be the rule, rather than the exception, when it comes to the oil and gas industries on such things, these days.

    But since you are an expert, as it seems, perhaps you can provide a clear and credible answer to the questions I raised in my Comment 3. What is the net advantage of using such chemicals in the fracking fluid? Can’t fracking be done without the use of any synthetic or “un-natural” chemicals, i.e., by using a mixture of clean water and sand, or whatever, or perhaps using a mixture involving natural ingredients in place of the synthetic chemicals, along with the water? Aren’t the benefits of using chemicals in the mixture largely economic in nature, rather than absolutely necessary? Would the industry say that the ONLY way to frack is to use synthetic chemicals in the fracking mixture? If so, why? Or, is it just a matter of cost?

    I’ll look forward to your answers, hopefully. Thanks.

    Jeff

  7. KariV says:

    Unlike most of the news articles I have seen, you have actually listed the term ‘fracing’ as an alternative to ‘fracking’.

    In industry it’s ‘a frac job’ or ‘fracing’, slang for hydraulic fracturing. There is no ‘k’ in fracing. Check out Oil & Gas Journal, the industry weekly. You won’t see the term ‘fracking’.

    I mention this only because people with industry backgrounds tend to assume that if the media can’t spell industry slang right, they can’t possibly understand the process either.

    To me,the most worrisome things about these big frac jobs is the huge volumes of water used AND the contamination that the water brings up when it it pumped out of the hole. Really nasty stuff such as hypersaline brine or toxic hydrocarbon compounds. Black shales are often ‘hot’. Along with all sorts of other garbage like sulfides, they often accumulate radioactive compounds. How do you clean this water to remove not only the original frac chemicals but also the contamination picked up in the well bore? If this water is to be returned to streams or lakes, it will need much more sophisticated treatment than is available in a typical water treatment plant.

    Underground disposal in deep injection wells is often mentioned as a disposal option the contaminated water. But there are a limited number of deep injection wells and there is an awful lot of water. Plus deep injection of fluids into wells in fault zones has been known to cause earthquakes . . .

    Personally I think that the solution is highly sophisticated portable water treatment units at each drill site that clean or even purify every drop of water before it leaves the site. The investment in development of such units would be small change to industry, despite their constant cries that all these unreasonable costs and regulations will drive them out of business. They could recoup some of their investment by producing high volume water purifiers that could be deployed for disaster response, where availability of clean water is critical.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Hi KariV, You have a number of legitimate concerns. The large volumes of water required are in fact a limiting factor, and in Texas (where fracing of long horizontal wells in shale gas formations has been practiced for the last 15 years), the return water (after the frac job the water used to created the fractures is produced back to surface for the most part, some stays in the formation) is re-used to perform the next frac job. This requires limited treatment. There is some residue that must be disposed. Compared to the residues produced by coal mining, coal washing, coal power plant particulate recovery systems, and finally coal ash ponds, the residue and overall emissions of shale gas formation drilling and fracing are microscopic. There is no doubt whatsoever, shale gas is the hands-down environmental winner compared to coal, especially considering the superior efficiency of modern natural gas power plants compared to old coal power plants. A new natural gas power plant will produce about 70% less carbon dioxide than an old coal power plant, on the basis of electric energy units delivered to the grid. This is what the debate should be about. How can the US develop its shale gas resources fast enough to completely shut down the coal industry. It is possible and it should be national policy. Do not be surprised if it becomes so in the near future.

  9. Jeff Huggins says:

    Dear Tammy Skillings (Comment 5), KariV (Comment 7), and Anonymous (Comment 8),

    Thanks for your comments, and I’m learning from them, assuming that they are correct. (I don’t have the expertise or reason to doubt them, on technical matters.)

    That said, they leave a few central questions unanswered, and they are questions that can shift the outcome one way or another.

    For one thing, as I asked in earlier comments, what are the actual net advantages and benefits of the synthetic chemical additives in the fracing fluid? Can’t natural ingredients be used instead, with perhaps less efficiency but still allowing the fracing itself to occur? That’s a key question. Is it all about “money” or is there some reason that using the synthetical chemicals is absolutely necessary, otherwise fracing can’t take place?

    And, regarding Anonymous’s point, about the need for shale gas resources in order to “completely shut down the coal industry”: Although gas is moderately, or substantially, cleaner than coal, depending on your definitions of those words, it is still a hydrocarbon and much less clean than renewables such as solar, wind, and so forth. So, will you still be interested in “completely shutting down” an industry when the argument is eventually made to “shut down” the oil and gas industry — or at least to substantially diminish its size? Do you think that oil and gas are not, ultimately, also very important problems, at least in terms of their use as fuels? (Of course, oil and gas can be used to make things that are not ultimately burned. In the long-term, their highest-value uses will ultimately be for such things.)

    There is another problem, too, that I think people in the relevant industries should note. (And I’ve worked in the oil industry, and as a chemical engineer, before.) The problem is this: Many people in the industry get frustrated or upset if the public, or EPA, or whoever, doesn’t trust them when they explain the precise details why such-and-such process is actually relatively safe and responsible, which in some cases, or even many, might be the case. But, meanwhile, the same industries and their trade groups routinely do things that are misleading, untrustworthy, manipulative, confusing, and so forth, every darn day. I know: I watch the public advertorials, follow the corporate statements, and understand most of the science. So, that brings us to this problem …

    Call it the boy-who-cried-wolf problem. You (speaking about these industries) cannot, and should not, expect the public or sensible politicians or scientists to trust you, or your intentions, or your degree of genuine responsibility, if you (speaking about the industries) continue to mislead, confuse, manipulate, and so forth on the large matters. Some of the companies within these industries simply do not deserve the public’s trust, and it would be unwise for the public TO trust them. Trust doesn’t arise, and isn’t deserved, and isn’t warranted, when a company is responsible and honest only on matters where it serves the company’s own interests (or doesn’t cost it) to be responsible and honest, when that company is substantially irresponsible, deceitful, manipulative, and dishonest whenever it serves the company’s interests to act in those ways. Hence the word “integrity”. The combination Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (spelling?) is not normally used as an example of integrity and trustworthiness. Adolph Hitler was apparently kind to his pets and some of his personal secretaries, but not to many millions of other people, of course — to put it mildly. I only mention this to some of you folks, here, because (if you are in these industries) it would be good to note that leaders in these industries should realize that their own current tactics are eventually going to backfire. For example, at this point, someone from ExxonMobil could provide all sorts of reasons, that are technically correct, why some process X is responsible and safe, when done in a responsible and safe way, in responsible and safe conditions, by responsible and safe people, and so forth; and I still would not trust ExxonMobil to implement that process on a large scale, or to gain my business, or to “continue doing what we do best” (as Rex Tillerson once put it) — because ExxonMobil is not acting in ways that are responsible and safe when it comes to large matters that are vitally important to the future. A company can be “right” when it comes to a technical detail or two, or a specific process, but still not deserve permission or trust on a large scale. I think of ExxonMobil as a company with a DEEPLY flawed character, and I believe I have good reason to do so. So, tell me what they will about fracing fluids, it won’t matter much to me if they are still flaring gas, running misleading advertorials, fighting against responsible legislation, and so forth.

    Sorry for length.

    Be Well,

    Jeff

  10. Jeff Huggins says:

    (Sorry about “synthetical” in my Comment 9. If I make a few more accidents like that, and if they become habitual, I should probably go into politics.)

    Cheers,

    Jeff

  11. ToddInNorway says:

    Jeff, the short answer is that the main function of the additives is to reduce or increase viscosity of the fracturing fluid (which is mostly water) so that fewer pumps are required. There are literally tens of flatbed 18-wheeler trucks with pumps mounted to move the volume of liquid at high enough pressures at a single frac job. After the frac has been created in the formation, a slurry of sand suspended in a higher viscosity fluid is pumped in. The sand enters the fracture and props it open after pressure has been re-equilibrated to initial and the well put on production. Hope this helps.

  12. John McCormick says:

    Sarah, Tom and Joe,

    Jeff (comment # 3) asked you some excellent questions and the answers are out there and are not all proprietary. Maybe EPA can lead you to some answers and we need them quickly.

    John McCormick

  13. Jeff Huggins says:

    Hi ToddInNorway (Comment 11):

    Thanks for the comment and info. The info helps, a lot, but it leaves me with a question still:

    Could the fracing task be accomplished, then, in either or both of these ways, in order to avoid the use of the weird or potentially problematic synthetic chemical additives?

    A. Just use more pumps. This is purely a matter of economics, for the most part. So, can simply adding more pumps do the trick? Or, aside from the pumps, must the fracing fluid be viscous in order to get the sand where it needs to go?

    Or,

    B. If the fluid MUST have a certain viscosity in order to move the sand into place, AND/OR in an attempt to avoid the need to add too many more pumps (the latter being merely a matter of economics), can reasonable viscosities be achieved by using some mixture of naturally occurring, or completely safe, chemicals that won’t harm the environment at all? Put sugar into the water? Honey? Mayonnaise? Wine? HFCS? Whatever.

    In other words, in order for these companies to even begin to argue that they ought to be allowed to put potentially harmful synthetic chemicals into the ground, they should have to show and prove that natural and unharmful ingredients can’t accomplish the task AND that the viscosity itself is absolutely necessary and not just a matter of the efficiency associated with being able to use fewer pumps than would otherwise have to be used.

    In my view, we should not (under any circumstances) put harmful chemicals into the ground. But, even in order to present their argument otherwise, these companies should be asked to show that no other alternatives can possibly allow them to do the fracing. It’s hard for me to imagine that that’s the case.

    Thanks again for the info. Can you shed more light on the above matters?

    Cheers,

    Jeff

    (And thanks, John, for continuing to ask the question!)