Monday, December 8, 2008

Natural Gas Shale Fracturing Getting a Congressional Look


There’s a move in Congress to impose tighter regulations on a key process used to recover natural gas in the Barnett Shale.

Hydraulic fracturing uses a mix of water, sand and chemicals to create tiny cracks in the rock and release the gas. But it’s been under fire for years from environmentalists who question whether the chemicals are safe.

Barnett Shale drillers said they rely less on gels and other chemicals and more on "slick water" — a mixture of water, sand and surfactants that are similar to those in soap and make the water easier to pump.

Any chemicals they do use — more than 50 compounds are listed in Fort Worth’s records — are a tiny percentage of the millions of gallons used in each well and are largely flushed out of the ground, drillers say.

And many of those chemicals — like sodium bicarbonate, or ordinary baking soda — are benign.

But others are potentially deadly, and disclosure requirements are lax, environmentalists say. What’s more, even the small percentage used in wells amounts to thousands of gallons of potential contaminants, environmentalists say. Once the chemicals are used, they must be disposed of.

A bill by U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., would require companies to disclose the drilling chemicals they use and would subject them to the federal Clean Water Act.

The stakes are high because gas drilling is beginning to push into neighborhoods, near parks and next to water reservoirs in Tarrant County.

"The challenge all communities face is trying to figure out what’s going into their air and water, what’s going into their soil," said Jennifer Goldman, a researcher with the Oil and Gas Accountability Project.

Industry officials worry, too.

"Once the regulations are in place, the cost of compliance with those regulations is going to impact everyone that uses the fracturing technology," said Ed Ireland, executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council.

The background

Hydraulic fracturing has been used since the 1940s but has become a big issue in the last 10 years.

The method made it feasible to recover natural gas from the Barnett Shale. But environmentalists have consistently questioned whether the process is safe.

In a typical "frac job," a dozen trucks carrying high-powered pumps cluster around a well. They blast a mix of water and chemicals into the ground for a couple of days, opening cracks in the surrounding rock. In most cases, the mix includes sand, plastic beads or other "proppants" to hold the cracks open while gas and oil escape.

In 2005, Congress exempted hydraulic fracturing from the Clean Water Act, which regulates most industries that affect streams or aquifers.

A study by the Environmental Protection Agency determined that hydraulic fracturing posed little risk to water. Environmentalists say that the study is flawed and that the exemption poses health risks.

The chemicals

Even though the EPA and state regulators don’t track drilling chemicals, companies still have to file paperwork with cities explaining what chemicals are being kept on site.

The Star-Telegram obtained material safety data sheets, or MSDSs, for 55 compounds from Fort Worth officials.

The list seems to bear out the industry’s contention that drillers use mostly slick water. But 35 out of 55 compounds contain chemicals that are classified as health hazards.

Biocides, used to control bacteria that might grow in the drilling mud or the fracturing fluid, can also kill insects and leave the soil sterile if improperly handled.

Three of the polymers used to thicken the fracturing fluid can cause cancer either by themselves or because they might contain traces of other carcinogens. Several compounds include ester alcohol, which can harm animals and aquatic life.

The health effects from other chemicals range from skin irritation to cancer. One chemical can cause "difficulty breathing, twitching, lung congestion, paralysis and coma."

Industry’s position

Drillers say there is virtually no risk of groundwater contamination.

Only about 0.5 percent of fracture fluid is made up of chemicals — the rest is water, said Dan Arthur, a consultant who has studied fracturing. And the wells are managed so that pressure drives the fluid out of the ground when the well is completed.

"Those fluids don’t want to go in the shallow groundwater, they want to go in the well bore," he said. "If you look at what are the opportunities for fluids to reach groundwater, it’s so minute I would call it indistinguishable from zero."

Fracture fluids in the Barnett Shale are stored in portable tanks once they’re removed from the well. In New Mexico and Colorado, the fluid is often stored in pits, where chemicals can evaporate into the air or seep into the ground.

"If they’re doing the operation properly, the majority of the water is coming back up, and that’s being treated the right way," said Stephanie Meadows, a spokeswoman for the American Petroleum Institute.

Potential exposure

A typical fracturing job requires up to 3 million gallons of water. If chemicals make up 0.5 percent of that, they represent 5,000 to 15,000 gallons. In theory, the chemicals can’t harm the environment because they’re pushed deep underground.

The Texas Railroad Commission requires oil and gas wells to be fitted with steel casing and concrete deep enough to protect groundwater from potential contamination.

And there are thousands of feet of rock between the Barnett Shale and any drinkable water.

One concrete application has been documented to fail, although it was in Ohio, where hydraulic fracturing wasn’t being used, Arthur said.

But environmentalists warn of the human element — surface spills, truck accidents and other mishaps. "Even under the best conditions, this can be dangerous," said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, an advocacy group.

In Texas, most wastewater from oil and gas drilling is injected into disposal wells. In Parker County, there were two accidents at disposal wells during one week in October.

"Cleanup of spills and releases is often a big concern for folks because they can’t be certain that all the chemicals have been removed if the public agency doesn’t know what they are looking for," Goldman said.

The unknown

Fort Worth’s paperwork doesn’t reveal everything that’s being used.

Some of the chemicals are listed by general names, such as "petroleum distillates" or ester alcohol. Two chemicals are listed as "proprietary."

Most fracturing is done by specialty firms such as Halliburton, Schlumberger and BJ Services. They have defended keeping the chemicals they use private.

"We make a significant investment in developing effective fracturing fluid systems, and we are careful to protect the fruits of the company’s research and development efforts," Halliburton spokeswoman Cathy Mann said.

Those loose definitions can cover a lot of ground, said Theo Colburn, a chemistry professor who runs the nonprofit Endocrine Disruption Network and has researched the health effects of drilling chemicals.

"They’re beginning to obfuscate the issue even more by basically not specifying the specific chemical that’s in the product," she said.

There’s little oversight of the paperwork. Companies are not required to submit the MSDSs to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Drilling companies decide what to record on product sheets.

"What we do know about a lot of chemicals is that short-term exposure, certainly at high levels, can cause serious problems," Metzger said. "What we don’t know is what some of the long-term impacts are."

The key question is not necessarily what’s being used but how.

"What are the volumes, concentrations and combinations?" Goldman asked.

Among the chemicals on file with Fort Worth is sodium bicarbonate. Under normal circumstances, it’s safe enough to use as toothpaste.

Drilling companies use baking soda to remove cement from drilling mud.

But "for every 1 pound of sodium bicarbonate used to precipitate lime, the equivalent of 0.48 pounds of caustic soda remains as a byproduct," the MSDS says

Caustic soda is corrosive and can burn the eyes, skin and lungs on contact. It can also kill fish if it gets in water.


DeGette’s bill is not the first attempt to increase oversight of fracturing, but previous bills on the subject never made it out of committee. Supporters believe that the measure has a better chance of passing after U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., becomes chairman of the House Energy Committee next year. Waxman has criticized the energy industry and held hearings on fracturing in 2007.

DeGette’s bill wouldn’t necessarily mean stringent regulations, said Kristofer Eisenla, DeGette’s communications director. "We think this is a well-established precedent. If you’re conducting operations that might threaten public health, the government should have some oversight."

Cities don’t necessarily want that responsibility. Fort Worth doesn’t have the staff to monitor and review the chemicals being used, said Susan Alanis, the city’s planning and development director.

The Texas Railroad Commission has a form for companies to list the chemicals they use in each well.

"There is no requirement for operators to report component materials," commission spokeswoman Ramona Nye said. "An example of what is listed in this section of the form would be 2,019 barrels SW" or slick water.

Colorado’s Oil and Gas Commission is considering rules to require companies to list the chemicals being used at each drilling site, how much of each was used and when.

The rules would restrict oil and gas operations within 300 feet of streams, within a quarter-mile of public water supplies, and around the habitat of bighorn sheep, mule deer, elk, eagles, hawks and other wildlife.

The rules would also require companies to provide information about proprietary chemicals to health and environmental officials in case of emergency.

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