Fracking fluid spill raises concerns over regulation
On April 19, a mechanical problem at a Pennsylvania natural gas well caused thousands of gallons of briny water and fracking fluid of unknown composition to spew out of the well, overwhelm containment facilities and flow across a field and into a pond. The local emergency management agency told seven families to evacuate their homes. It took a response team -- Houston-based Boots and Coots -- 13 hours to reach the site. Six days went by before workers were able to seal the leak, replace the wellhead and get the well "under control."
The spill raised tensions between environmentalists and industry over an issue that's been brewing for a while now: Should the underground injection of fracking fluid be regulated by the federal government or the states? As things stand now, fracking fluid is exempt from federal regulation, so it's up to states to oversee how it is done. Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection issued a Notice of Violation to operator Chesapeake Energy over the recent spill outlining possible fines and asking for a complete list of the ingredients in the fracking fluid.
Under what is known as "the Halliburton loophole" in the 2005 Energy Policy Act, fracking fluid is exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act, which requires a federal permit for injecting substances underground. Instead, states set their own regulations, and many regulate fracking fluid just as they would briny water that sometimes comes out of oil and gas wells, either treating it for reuse or surface disposal, or re-injecting it. Most states have well construction requirements to protect fresh-water aquifers, but few have regulations specific to fracking fluid.
That's changing, though. Some Western states have been leading the charge to regulate fracking including requiring companies to reveal the ingredients in the fluid, which can differ between wells and companies. Tom Doll, state supervisor for the Wyoming Oil and Gas Commission, the first state to require full disclosure of the chemicals in fracking fluid says, "I've been real proud of the rules we have put in place."
But some have criticized the ability of states to adequately regulate and believe fracking needs federal oversight. A bill under consideration by U.S. Congress, the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals or FRAC Act, would give the Environmental Protection Agency authority to regulate fracking and would require disclosure of those proprietary ingredients. The FRAC Act died in both the Senate and House last year, and was reintroduced this year. A vote has yet to take place.
Doll has concern about how the passage of the FRAC Act would undermine Wyoming's rules. "I think we have the appropriate rules in place. We don't need federal oversight," he says.
Mike Nickolaus of the State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations -- a non-profit organization of that helps states improve their oil and gas regulations -- agrees. He says its better to have state than federal regulatory oversight for fracking because state agencies have more people on the ground in the areas they serve. Putting fracking under the oversight of the EPA would just, "add a level of permitting on top of permitting," he says. His organization launched a new website -- fracfocus.org -- in early April where oil and gas companies can voluntarily post their fracking fluid recipes. So far, 37 companies have listed ingredients used at 444 wells.
But others feel that may not be enough. At a hearing in early April, Democrats argued that federal standards for the fluid are necessary because failure to protect drinking water sources from contamination by fracking fluid can threaten downstream users in other states. Robert Perciasepe, deputy administrator of the EPA, questioned whether oversight in Pennsylvania has been sufficient.
Meanwhile the Pennsylvania well operator, Chesapeake Energy, which also has wells in Colorado and Wyoming, temporarily stopped all hydraulic fracturing of its oil and gas wells throughout the eastern Marcellus shale, but fracking will continue apace in the West.
Emilene Ostlind is the editorial fellow at HCN.