Gas industry gets cracking

  • Hydraulic frac'ing at a well near Durango, Colorado


There’s no mistaking the moment when the coal deposits crack. The earth shakes, windows rattle and cupboard doors swing open, says Carl Weston, a landowner who lives outside Durango, Colo.

“A few years back, I started getting calls from people in the San Juan Basin, saying, ‘My house shook and my (well) water turned black,’” says Gwen Lachelt, executive director of the Durango-based Oil and Gas Accountability Project.

This is not the result of earthquakes. It’s the doing of gas companies that crack subterranean coal deposits with pressurized water laden with chemical cocktails and sand. The process is called hydraulic fracturing, or “frac’ing” (rhymes with “cracking”).

In a typical coalbed methane frac’ing operation, water is injected into the ground, opening fissures in the coal seam, which contains methane gas. Sand, suspended in a gelling agent, is pumped into the fissures to prop them open. A second wash of chemicals, called thinning agents, is then pumped in to liquefy the gel, so the water and chemicals can be pumped out, followed by the gas.

A host of above-ground impacts of coalbed methane development have lately pitted the industry against ranchers and conservationists: Coalbed methane drillers discharge millions of gallons of groundwater onto rangeland, and construct access roads, pipelines and drill pads (HCN, 12/9/02: Cowboys fight oil and gas drillers). However, environmentalists suspect depleted groundwater and fouled aquifers may prove to be equally destructive aspects of the West’s natural gas bonanza.

Of particular concern to people like Weston and others who live in the shadow of drilling rigs are the chemicals used in frac’ing, 20 to 30 percent of which remain in the ground after the gas is extracted. The industry’s friends in Washington, however, are determined to shield this procedure from federal regulation.

For the love of frac’ing

Frac’ing, which was pioneered by Halliburton Co. in the 1940s, does have an indisputable environmental upside. Because it maximizes wells’ productivity, frac’ing means fewer wells need to be drilled to produce the same overall yield. By 1999, frac’ing had accounted for an increased yield of 7 billion barrels of oil and 600 trillion cubic feet of gas, according to the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, an industry-friendly association representing the governors of 30 energy-producing states.

“Approximately 35,000 wells are hydraulically fractured annually in this country,” the group’s Washington state representative, Kevin Bliss, told the National Drinking Water Advisory Council last December, “with close to 1 million wells having been hydraulically fractured since the technique’s inception, with no documented harm to groundwater.”

Industry guards the chemical recipes for frac’ing fluids as proprietary secrets, but representatives have likened their ingredients to harmless substances like soap and guar gum, the stuff that makes pudding congeal. In reality, agents include diesel fuel and ethylene glycol, the chemical in antifreeze that keeps water liquid.

“Sure, it’s an infrequent occurrence that frac’ing fluids would get to a (water) well, but the potential is there,” says David Ludder, a Florida-based environmental lawyer. “A lot of coalbed methane operations are frac’ing in aquifers that are classified as underground sources of drinking water, so there is bound to be this hydraulic connection.”

Ludder’s group, Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation (LEAF), alleges that frac’ing in northern Alabama’s Black Warrior Basin, the nation’s first coalbed methane hot spot, contaminated residential well water. In a 1997 decision, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Ludder that frac’ing is “an underground injection,” as defined by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, and is therefore worthy of regulation.

That ruling and a follow-up decision in 2001 prompted industry’s friends in Congress to tuck a special provision into the 800-page Energy Bill last month, specifically exempting frac’ing from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act (HCN, 8/18/03: Energy bill will likely boost drilling in the Rockies).

“It’s as if the oil and gas industry is never satisfied (with) the favorable treatment they get from the federal government,” says David Alberswerth, the Wilderness Society’s BLM program manager.

EPA backs down

Energy companies contend the proposed exemption eliminates an unnecessary regulatory hoop.

“The states do an excellent job regulating hydraulic fracturing. It simply does not need a further layer of regulation,” says Ken Johnson. Johnson is a spokesman for House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R, who has represented energy-rich northern Louisiana since 1980.

Regulators agree: According to a draft report released in August 2002, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found “no persuasive evidence” that frac’ed wells contaminated drinking water. The possibility of future contamination is too remote, the report concluded, to justify federal regulation of frac’ing.

However, the agency report does urge industry to quit frac’ing with diesel fuel in favor of water-based polymers. Diesel contains toxins such as toluene, benzene and methyl tertiary butyl ether, better known as MTBE. Environmentally inclined members of Congress attacked the EPA’s conclusions as the result of industry-massaged data and lazy investigation.

“Too often, it appears that technical and scientific information given to Congress is being altered by (the Bush) administration to support predetermined conclusions that benefit powerful and well-connected corporate interests,” Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., wrote in an October 2002 letter to then-EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman. “Injecting these toxic chemicals into underground sources of drinking water presents an obvious risk of contaminating water supplies and threatening human health.”

In a proposed amendment to the Energy Bill, Waxman tried to ban diesel in frac fluids, thus making mandatory what EPA asked industry to do voluntarily, but his proposal died in committee.

The author writes from Bozeman, Montana.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency frac’ing study, cbmstudy.html

Rep. Billy Tauzin 202-225-4031

Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, 405-525-3556

Oil and Gas Accountability Project 970-259-3353

Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation 850-681-2591

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