By Tom Kenworthy, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.
In the past couple of years big energy has launched an aggressive defense of the drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, which employs a mixture of water, sand and chemicals pumped at high pressure deep underground to stimulate production of natural gas and oil. The practice is now used in about 90 percent of the roughly half million gas wells in the U.S.
According to the American Petroleum Institute, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as it is often called, “is well regulated and safe, and it has a proven track record.”
Energy in Depth, which falsely bills itself as an association of small, independent oil and gas producers, calls fracking “a safe, well-regulated, environmentally sound practice that has been employed over one million times without a single incidence of drinking water contamination.”
But those assertions that fracking is a benign and well-regulated practice have done little to quell growing concerns that fracking with often undisclosed chemicals poses significant threats to surface and underground water supplies. As natural gas development has soared in areas rich in gas locked in underground shale deposits from Texas to New York State, pressure has mounted on the industry to disclose the chemicals that are used and on Congress to give the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to regulate the underground injections of fracking fluids. Congress in 2005 specifically exempted the practice from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
The drive to better understand the complex issues surrounding fracking has been driven in large part by thorough and aggressive investigative reporting, particularly by ProPublica, a non-profit center for investigative journalism. Public discussion has also accelerated with the Oscar nomination of the independent documentary “Gasland.”
In the past week, the New York Times has advanced the story in a significant way, with reports on how wastewater produced during gas drilling is often laced with dangerous levels of radioactive elements like radium, and released into surface waters and used to de-ice highways. The final story, published Thursday, is a devastating portrait of how political pressures, dating to the Reagan administration, have derailed effective regulation and control of drilling wastes:
More than a quarter century of efforts by some lawmakers and regulators to force the federal government to police the industry better have been thwarted, as E.P.A. studies have been repeatedly narrowed in scope, and important findings have been removed.
In its first report, the Times reported that “thousands of internal documents obtained…from the Environmental Protection Agency, state regulators and drillers show that the dangers to the environment and health are greater than previously understood”:
The documents reveal that the wastewater, which is sometimes hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water, contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for these treatment plants to handle.
In its second story, the Times charges that recycling of the wastewater produced during drilling also entails risks to public health and the environment:
Some methods can leave behind salts or sludge highly concentrated with radioactive material and other contaminants that can be dangerous to people and aquatic life if they get into waterways. Some well operators are also selling their waste, rather than paying to dispose of it. Because it is so salty, they have found ready buyers in communities that spread it on roads for de-icing in the winter and for dust suppression in the summer. When ice melts or rain falls, the waste can run off roads and end up in the drinking supply.
Those reports come after a January investigation by the House Energy and Commerce Committee determined that oil and gas service companies have injected millions of gallons of diesel fuel into gas wells, apparently in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
With Energy and Commerce now controlled by lawmakers friendly to the oil and gas industry, it’s not likely there will be any further full committee investigations. But Democratic lawmakers are pressing for more information from the Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department.
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-MA), the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Natural Resources, has written to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson pressing for her agency’s plans to better protect the public from the risks of contaminated drilling wastewater. Markey and another committee Democrat, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) have asked Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for detailed information on the practice of hydraulic fracturing during drilling on federal lands. And three New York Democrats, Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Maurice Hinchey and Jerrold Nadler have requested congressional hearings into issues raised by the Times series.
The recent revelations ought to settle the argument over whether hydraulic fracturing needs to be subject to more effective and adequately funded and staffed oversight by both federal and state agencies. That will help ensure that industry is using the best available methods for protecting our air and water. Natural gas could help in the fight against climate change, but only if a well-regulated industry produces it responsibly and safely.