The drilling industry argues that state regulations, and industry self-policing, are adequate to protect our drinking water from hydraulic fracturing. Experience shows us otherwise.
NOTE: This piece appeared in full as an op-ed in the 9/11/2009 Durango Herald.
Why the fuss about fracing and the Safe Drinking Water Act?
In a recent column (Herald, Aug. 21), Christi Zeller, executive director of the La Plata County Energy Council, argued that state rules governing gas and oil ensure that hydraulic fracturing – fracing – of gas wells won't harm groundwater. In the political realm, fracing was the subject of a 26-minute speech by U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla. Closer to home, this high-pressure production technique has been the subject of three resolutions by our county commissioners.
The catalyst for all this attention is HR 2766, introduced by U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, and the bill's Senate counterpart, S 1215. This five-paragraph bill does two things: It requires public disclosure of chemical constituents used in fracing and brings fracing back under the Safe Drinking Water Act, our primary federal statute for protecting public drinking-water supplies.
Three main issues have caused this bill to resonate widely. First, as we become more aware of water's finiteness, we become more protective. Without clean water, we have no future here in Colorado. The Safe Drinking Water Act, which used to require regulation of fracing, reflected that need for protection.
In recent state hearings, it became clear that the gas and oil industry has caused more than 300 instances of contaminated water in Colorado since 2003 – 19 in La Plata County – and more than 700 instances in New Mexico. As the Texas Supreme Court recently noted, estimates of the distance hydraulic fractures travel are “imprecise at best,” and “virtually nothing can be done to control” the direction in which fractures run. Given this history and lack of control, people fear they might be the next person whose water well gets contaminated.
Second, we are being asked to trust one of the most profitable and powerful industries in the country – so powerful that it got White House assistance in obtaining the Safe Drinking Water Act exemption. Many times we have heard gas and oil development is “safe,” until bitter experience has shown otherwise.
In the case of Laura Amos, the company denied that 2-BE, a fracing chemical linked with a rare type of cancer, was used in a nearby well. Amos later developed that cancer. In Pavillion, Wyo., it took eight years and the Environmental Protection Agency's involvement to finally get water tested. Now, sampling shows contaminants in water wells, including 2-BE. In New Mexico, the industry claimed drilling and waste pits did not leak. It took testing by the state to document levels of contaminants that violated health standards. So when we hear assurances of how “safe” fracing is, when there are no scientific studies documenting that safety, our experience tells us to beware.
Third, we see signs of the pervasiveness of chemicals all around us, and this industry is no different. Public data show that more than 340 chemicals are used in fracing, with at least 200 known to have adverse health impacts. A representative of a large fracing company estimates that, of more than 2,500 chemicals used in gas and oil fields, at least 60 to 65 percent are nontoxic. He believes it would be “simple” to raise this figure to 90 percent, as the technology “already exists,” although the United States was “still behind the curve” in this area, compared to other countries.
Locally, according to EPA figures, between 12 million and 122 million gallons of fracing fluids may have been left in the Fruitland formation. In its 2002 draft report on fracing, the EPA said the Fruitland formation showed possible residual contamination from fracing.
Is it any wonder, then, that New York City does not want any drilling in its watershed? Or that Rep. DeGette wants to require disclosure of fracing chemicals?
Colorado has shown leadership in revising its gas and oil rules, and is the first state to require chemical inventories. However, even Colorado's disclosure rule will not help landowners identify chemicals to be used in the gas well next door. Nor would the rule help a nurse who needed immediate access to which chemicals were in the fluids that drenched a worker. Absent that information, medical responders could end up, as Durango's Cathy Behr did, in the emergency room not knowing the long-term effects of the contamination.
We have decades of experience with Zeller's claim that state rules work best. With our water at risk and without a full commitment to preventing contamination, we need to look at other approaches. That is why so many have been disappointed by the refusal of local leaders to support Rep. DeGette's bill. In the long run, the costs will be far less if industry commits to the use of less toxic fluids. Until then, we need to take this relatively small, yet significant, step forward by passing the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals or FRAC Act.
Bruce Baizel is senior staff attorney at the Oil & Gas Accountability Project, a program of Earthworks, in Durango. Reports and sources are available at www.ogap.org.