By Dusty Horwitt
Companies that drill for natural gas and oil are skirting federal law and injecting toxic petroleum distillates into thousands of wells, threatening drinking water supplies from Pennsylvania to Wyoming. Federal and state regulators, meanwhile, largely look the other way.
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 minuscule levels. Drillers inject these substances into rock 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 oil and natural gas wells and has been instrumental in accessing huge new natural gas deposits trapped in shale formations (Carrillo 2005).
In a worst case scenario, 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. (NYDEC DSGEIS 2009, Pagnotto 1961) That is more than 10 times as much water as the state of New York uses in a single day. (NYDEC DSGEIS 2009)
Fracking has already been linked to drinking water contamination and property damage in Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wyoming and other states. (Lustgarten 2008a, 2008b)
Despite the risks, Congress in 2005 exempted hydraulic fracturing, except fracturing with diesel fuel, from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). Diesel is the only substance for which drillers must seek a permit before it is injected underground. (SDWA 2009)
Based on a six-month investigation of chemical disclosure records filed by several of the largest drilling corporations and interviews with regulators in five states, Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that:
- Companies are injecting natural gas wells with millions of gallons of fracking fluids laced with petroleum distillates that can be similar to diesel and represent an equal or greater threat to water supplies. The 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. Although the companies disclosed the distillates in the context of natural gas drilling, at least several of the companies, including Halliburton, Schlumberger Ltd. and B.J. Services Co., also help drill and fracture oil wells, suggesting that at least some of the same distillates may be used in oil drilling, too.
- State and federal regulatory agencies surveyed in the report are generally not tracking fluids used in fracturing and in some cases appear to misinterpret the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. As a result, companies could easily be fracturing with diesel without a permit. Only one of five state or federal agencies contacted, in Wyoming, reported tracking the chemicals used in fracking operations. But even Wyoming requires companies to disclose trade names of fracking fluids only, not the specific chemical components of the fluids. (The other agencies were in Pennsylvania, New York, Montana, and Texas.)
- A Wyoming state official reported that companies commonly use diesel in that state and that the state has not issued any permits for fracturing under the SDWA.
- Congress should require companies to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act when using any substance for hydraulic fracturing. Currently, the act allows companies to use substances that may be at least toxic as diesel without any oversight.
- Congress should require drilling companies to publicly disclose the chemicals they use in hydraulic fracturing in each well. At a minimum, companies must disclose Chemical Abstracts Services Registry Numbers in every chemical product to allow easy identification. Generic names such as “petroleum distillate” leave the public in the dark.
- The U.S. Department of the Interior should exercise its authority under the oil and gas leasing program to require such disclosures for wells drilled on federal land.
- Congress should investigate federal and state oversight of hydraulic fracturing and insist that federal and state personnel be properly informed about the law.
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should use its existing authority to determine whether companies are using diesel and enforce permit requirements.
View and Download the report here: Drilling Around the Law