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FRAC Act Gains House Supporters

Friday, December 4, 2009

By Dusty Horwitt, EWG Senior Counsel

A bill to establish federal oversight for a controversial oil and natural gas extraction technique called hydraulic fracturing has gained six more House supporters, four of them from New York City, where I testified Oct. 23 about the dangers of "fracing" near sources of drinking water for 8 million New Yorkers and 1 million New Jersey residents.

In all, 48 House members have signed on as co-sponsors of the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act of 2009 (FRAC Act), which would require companies to gain approval from the Environmental Protection Agency before using hydraulic fracturing to enhance production of oil and natural gas wells. The bill would also require companies to make public the chemicals they use in fracturing; too often, companies cloak their chemicals in secrecy and are exempt from federal laws that would require disclosure.

The latest cosponsors of the FRAC Act are Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY), Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-NY), Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY), Rep. Michael Honda (D-CA) and Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ).

Hydraulic fracturing involves injecting as many as 8 million gallons of water mixed with toxic chemicals and sand into underground rock formations to allow more oil or natural gas to seep into the drilling pipe. Drilling companies deploy the technique in 90 percent of the nation's oil and gas wells.

In 2005, after lobbying by Halliburton, one of the world's largest hydraulic fracturing companies, Congress exempted hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) of 1974, except when drillers use diesel fuel that contains carcinogenic benzene and other toxics. This exemption effectively hamstrung the EPA's ability to regulate releases of toxic fracing chemicals into underground water supplies - contamination that could impact municipal drinking water sources.

Earlier this year, House members Diana DeGette, D-CO, Maurice Hinchey, D-NY, and Jared Polis, D-CO and senators Bob Casey, D-PA, and Charles Schumer, D-NY introduced the FRAC Act to give the EPA authority to set standards for the underground injection of fracing fluids. EPA has had the same power for decades with respect to other types of underground injections.

At an Oct. 23 hearing before the New York City Council's Environmental Protection Committee. I presented an Environmental Working Group analysis of New York State's recent draft environmental impact assessment of natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing upstate. The state reported that companies intended to use petroleum distillates to fracture wells in New York.

While the EPA retains the power under the Safe Water Act to regulate hydraulic fracturing that uses diesel, a type of petroleum distillate, other petroleum distillates used in fracing such as kerosene and mineral spirits are not covered by the act -- even though they contain the same toxics that make diesel a prime concern.

EWG estimated that the amount of petroleum distillate used at a single well in New York State could contain enough benzene to contaminate more than 100 billion gallons of water, 10 times the daily water use of the entire New York state population.

EWG's analysis found that hydraulic fracturing has recently been linked to contaminated water and other environmental dangers in Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wyoming.

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