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Feb 182010

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Congressmen Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.) are asking for more information about the chemicals used to extract natural gas wells.

urban gas well outside a mall in North Texas

Urban gas well outside a mall in North Texas

Today, the two lawmakers sent letters to eight oil and natural gas companies requesting details of the ingredients used in hydraulic fracturing, a method of accessing natural gas deposits by blasting or fracturing the rock with a high pressure injection of water treated with chemicals.

The practice has come under scrutiny as natural gas drilling for shale deposits has encroached upon urban areas and watersheds in Texas (in the Barnett Shale region) and in the Northeast (the Marcellus Shale region). A  2005 law exempted oil companies from disclosure of the contents of their “fracking fluid” formulas after Halliburton convinced the Bush Administration the formulas should be proprietary and Congress slipped in an amendment to an energy bill.

This exemption to the Clean Drinking Water Act, known as the Halliburton loophole, has left the public in the dark about the current mix of chemicals used in fracturing, and in affected regions, many residents are concerned that natural gas operations could contaminate the air and underground water supplies. (A house bill has been introduced to repeal the loophole, The Natural Resources Defense Council is running a campaign where citizens can register their support for lifting the exemption.)

Benzene, a known carcinogen, is one chemical typically used in  fracking operations. Dozens of other toxic chemicals are employed. In an earlier request to Halliburton, BJ Service and Schlumberger, Waxman and Markey found that Halliburton and BJ were using toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene — all of which are considered environmentally harmful.

The response to that earlier request also revealed that the companies were using seven diesel-based fluids, potentially in defiance of a voluntary agreement with the EPA to not use those pollutants, according to a press release from Waxman’s office.

“Hydraulic fracturing could help us unlock vast domestic natural gas reserves once thought unattainable, strengthening America’s energy independence and reducing carbon emissions,” said Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, in a news release.

“As we use this technology in more parts of the country on a much larger scale, we must ensure that we are not creating new environmental and public health problems.  This investigation will help us better understand the potential risks this technology poses to drinking water supplies and the environment, and whether Congress needs to act to minimize those risks.”

“Natural gas can play a very important role in our clean energy future, provided that it is produced in a safe and sustainable way,” said Markey, chair of the subcommittee on Energy and the Environment.

The natural gas industry has argued that regulation of fracking fluids is not needed because the vast majority of fluids are removed from the well and systematically disposed of. A recent report by ProPublica, however, challenged that contention, citing  industry experts who told ProPublica that 85 percent of the fluids used remain in the ground.

The Congressional requests for additional information sent out today are going to Halliburton, BJ Service, Schlumberger and five other companies providing services in the natural gas field, Frac Tech Services, Superior Well Services, Universal Well Services, Sanjel Corporation, and Calfrac Well Services.

The Environmental Defense Fund praised Waxman and Markey for their efforts to drill for more info.

“We commend Chairman Waxman and Subcommittee Chairman Markey for this important step. There is no reason that gas producers need to run roughshod over the environment in order to increase natural gas supplies,” said EDF Senior Policy Advisor Scott Anderson.

“Because the problem of global warming is so severe and the time for action so short, all low and lower carbon energy options, including natural gas, should be considered as part of the nation’s energy mix, but only if such options can be accomplished without significant adverse health or environmental impacts.”

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