The EPA Finally Moves To Oversee Diesel Fuel Use In Fracking Fluids

CREDIT: AP Photo / Brennan Linsley

Add diesel fuel to the list of chemicals fossil fuel companies inject into the ground during hydraulic fracturing.

The practice, commonly known as “fracking,” involves drilling for oil or gas in especially tight shale deposits, then fracturing the formation by pumping fluids underground at high pressure, so the fossil fuels can flow out. Diesel fuel is sometimes among those fluids, along with a host of other chemicals, as water alone is often absorbed too easily by the formations. The use of diesel has actually been going on for almost a decade, but the Environmental Protection Agency is now moving to exert some control over the practice.

Current law gives primary permitting authority over fracking to the Department of the Interior, but companies must get permits from EPA when using diesel. On Tuesday, EPA issued new guidance concerning just what it defines as diesel, naming five different chemical variations as well as “technical recommendations” for meeting those standards.

That said, the guidance also leaves plenty of forms of diesel untouched. Nor does it amount to a hard rule: “Decisions about permitting hydraulic fracturing operations that use diesel fuels will be made on a case-by-case basis, considering the facts and circumstances of the specific injection activity and applicable statutes, regulations and case law, and will not cite this guidance as a basis for decision,” the EPA said.

Diesel includes known carcinogens such as benzene, toluene and xylene which pose a heightened risk of cancer, kidney damage, liver damage, or harm to the nervous system if ingested by humans.

Draft versions of the guidance were circling as early as May of 2012. But Tuesday’s release marks the first time EPA has officially exercised its muscles over diesel in fracking wells. In fact, diesel use is one of the few areas in which the country’s laws actually allow EPA to regulate fracking; in what came to be nicknamed “the Halliburton Loophole,” fracking was exempted from a host of environmental, water safety, and conservation laws in the federal Energy Policy Act of 2005.

There is also a smorgasbord of state-level rules and permitting requirements for fracking — some strict, some not — including the use of diesel.

A 2011 inquiry by House Democrats revealed that 14 fossil fuel companies injected 32 million gallons of diesel fuel underground between 2005 and 2009. At this point, only about two percent of oil and gas operations around the country reportedly make use of diesel, prompting the industry to protest that EPA’s new guidance is unnecessary and “threatens the primacy of states’ underground injection control programs.”

Along with concerns that the chemicals pumped underground could contaminate drinking water, fracking also consumes massive amounts of freshwater directly, further stressing water supplies already threatened by historic droughts. The practice has even been implicated in local earthquakes. Finally, it’s highly uncertain the natural gas boom fracking inaugurated in North America is sustainable, either economically or in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.