By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced today that it has asked nine natural gas service companies to voluntarily give information about the chemical composition of fluids used in the hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” process.

Fracking fluids are known to contain dozens of chemicals, designed to make the fluids work better when drillers crack into gas deposits deep in the earth. But the exact composition of companies’ formulas was exempted in 2005 from the Clean Water Act, which requires companies to make public chemicals being introduced into the environment.

The exemption, known as the Halliburton loophole, was supported by the Bush Administration, which concurred with Halliburton and others that fracturing fluids should be treated as proprietary secret formulas.

In 2009, Congress called on the EPA to study whether hydraulic fracturing could have an impact on drinking water and thereby possibly affect the public health of Americans living near gas wells. Today’s request is part of the EPA’s investigation. It gives the nine companies targeted 30 days to voluntarily respond or the agency will require disclosure, according to an agency news release. But the companies are expected to reply because they’ve already provided similar information to Congress.

Gas drillers inject millions of gallons of water mixed with the fracking chemicals into each well to tap into gas reserves. They draw the waste water, call produced water, back out of the well and send it to containment facilities.

Environmental groups have called for better clarity on the impact of fracking, noting that the gas wells cut through water tables on their way to the shale rock gas deposits found thousands of feet under the surface. Current fracking methods also employ horizontal drilling, which creates fissures in the shale that run in many directions. This allows drillers to access more of the natural gas and it’s raised questions about whether chemicals remain behind in the earth.

Natural gas companies have maintained that no leakage of the fracking fluid occurs and no drinking water is harmed. But the issue has stirred the ire of many localities where gas drilling has seemingly threatened groundwater or water wells. The independent film Gasland documented some of the problems faced by residents living near gas well sites in Pennsylvania, Colorado, Wyoming and Texas, including sickened livestock and water from faucets that bursts into flames.

In August,  concern citizens and regulators persuaded the state of New York to issue a moratorium on gas drilling because of concerns that gas extraction from the Marcellus Shale could contaminate pristine watersheds that provide water to New York City.

In addition to asking for the chemicals used in fracking fluids, the EPA is asking the gas companies for their data on human health impacts and the locations of fracking sites.

“This scientifically rigorous study will help us understand the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water – a concern that has been raised by Congress and the American people. By sharing information about the chemicals and methods they are using, these companies will help us make a thorough and efficient review of hydraulic fracturing and determine the best path forward,” said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson.

“Natural gas is an important part of our nation’s energy future, and it’s critical that the extraction of this valuable natural resource does not come at the expense of safe water and healthy communities.”

The EPA also is conducting public hearings in oil and gas production areas, and expects to complete an initial report by late 2012.

EPA’s request is going to nine gas servicing companies BJ Services, Complete Production Services, Halliburton, Key Energy Services, Patterson-UTI, PRC, Inc., Schlumberger, Superior Well Services, and Weatherford.

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