Drinking Water Threatened by Toxic Natural Gas and Oil Drilling Chemicals

Washington, D.C. - Companies drilling for natural gas and oil are skirting federal law and injecting toxic petroleum distillates into thousands of wells, threatening drinking water supplies from New York to Wyoming. Federal and state regulators, meanwhile, largely look the other way. The findings are part of a new report by Environmental Working Group titled Drilling Around the Law. (https://www.ewg.org/drillingaroundthelaw)

These distillates include kerosene, mineral spirits and a number of other petroleum products that often contain high levels of benzene, a known human carcinogen that is toxic in water at even minuscule levels. Drillers inject these substances into the earth under extremely high pressure in a process called hydraulic fracturing that energy companies use to extract natural gas and oil from underground formations. The process, known as “fracking,” fractures the rock to allow additional gas and oil to flow to the surface. Fracking is currently used in 90 percent of the nation’s natural gas and oil wells.

The petroleum distillates used in a single well could contain enough benzene to contaminate more than 100 billion gallons of drinking water to unsafe levels, according to drilling company disclosures in New York state and published studies. That is more than 10 times as much water as the entire state of New York uses in a single day.

Fracking has already been linked to drinking water contamination and property damage in Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wyoming. An emergency room nurse in Durango, Colorado nearly died when she came in contact with a fracking fluid while treating a drill rig worker.

Despite the clear risks, Congress in 2005 exempted hydraulic fracturing, except fracturing with diesel fuel, from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The exemption followed lobbying by Halliburton and other energy companies. Diesel is the only substance for which drillers must seek a permit before it is injected underground and some companies have pledged not to use it in certain circumstances. Yet other petroleum distillates used openly by the industry contain the same toxic chemicals found in diesel at levels that can be much higher. Diesel itself is a petroleum distillate.

"When companies say that they will not use diesel and then use other petroleum distillates, it’s a bit like promising not to smoke Marlboros and then lighting up a Camel,” said EWG Senior Counsel, Dusty Horwitt. “As far as the toxic components, the products are at least as dangerous.”

Other petroleum distillates typically contain the same highly toxic chemicals as diesel: benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. Distillates disclosed in records analyzed by EWG have been found to contain up to 93 times more benzene than diesel but require no authorization prior to use.

State and federal regulatory agencies surveyed in the report are generally not tracking fluids used in fracturing and some agencies, including the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (WOGCC), say the federal Safe Drinking Water Act completely exempts fracking – even with diesel. As a result, companies could easily be fracturing with diesel without a permit.

The WOGCC was the only one of the five state or federal agencies contacted that reported tracking the chemicals used in fracking operations, and a Wyoming official who asked not to be identified by name said that drilling companies in the state commonly use diesel for fracturing. The other agencies contacted were in Pennsylvania, New York, Montana, and Texas.


EWG is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, DC that uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment. https://www.ewg.org

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