Congress Seeks to Reveal Toxic Drilling Chemicals

Congressional Democrats have reintroduced legislation that would disclose the hazardous chemicals used in drilling for natural gas. Cases of potential water contamination have been increasing as the nation experiences a boom in gas drilling and use of drilling chemicals. Secrecy surrounding the identities of the chemicals, many of which are known to be hazardous, has hampered efforts to protect public and environmental health.

On March 15, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) and 31 cosponsors introduced the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act (FRAC Act) in the House. On the same day, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) and seven cosponsors introduced a similar bill in the Senate. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a widely used process where water and chemicals are injected into wells at extremely high pressures to fracture underground rock formations and release trapped natural gas.

The FRAC Act amends the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), the 1974 law that sets health and safety standards for the nation's drinking water and oversees state and municipal water regulators. The bill removes the oil and gas industry's exemption from regulation under the SDWA – a loophole created by 2005's Energy Policy Act – and requires disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking fluids.

According to Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), a cosponsor of the bill, "The FRAC Act is a simple, common sense way to answer the serious concerns that accompany the rapid growth of drilling across the country. Our bill restores a basic, national safety-net that will ensure transparency within the industry and safeguard our communities. If there is truly nothing to worry about, then this bill will lay the public’s concern to rest through science and sunlight."

Environmental advocates have compiled numerous cases of likely water contamination caused by hydraulic fracturing. A 2010 report by the environmental group Riverkeeper identified hundreds of cases of adverse environmental impacts linked to gas drilling. The report found impacts resulting not just from hydraulic fracturing, but also from "changes in land use, roadbuilding, water withdrawals, improper cementing and casing of wells, over-pressurized wells, gas migration from new and abandoned wells, the inability of wastewater treatment plants to treat flowback and produced water, underground injection of brine wastewater, improper erosion and sediment controls, truck traffic, compressor stations, as well as accidents and spills."

A recent documentary film, Gasland, which tracked the expansion of drilling and the connected rise in instances of water contamination and other health impacts, was nominated for an Academy Award.

Despite these documented impacts, the oil and gas industry consistently points to a lack of evidence that fracking contaminates groundwater or poses a public health threat. According to environmental groups, secrecy surrounding drilling operations, along with government failures to investigate possible contaminations – either due to the regulatory loophole granted to the industry or agency intransigence – keeps the public in the dark as to the nature and extent of health impacts.

Polis said, "There is a growing discrepancy between the natural gas industry's claim that nothing ever goes wrong and the drumbeat of investigations and personal tragedies which demonstrate a very different reality."

The FRAC Act contains important provisions that would meet many of the demands of environmental and public health advocates. However, drilling watchdogs stress that hydraulic fracturing is just one process among many in the development of fossil fuels that uses secret and harmful chemicals. From the exploration to the extraction, transportation, and processing of gas and oil at refineries, toxic chemicals pose a threat to public health and workers through leaks, spills, emissions, explosions, and other accidents. The disclosure of what chemicals are being used in each stage is necessary to monitor the health impacts of oil and gas development.

Advocates for this disclosure point out that it is very difficult to make definitive linkages between instances of water contamination and specific drilling operations when the public does not know what chemicals to test for or what chemicals have been used in the operations.

The FRAC Act would require drillers to disclose either to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or to state regulators the specific chemical identities of the substances used in hydraulic fracturing. Drillers would be required to report before fracking commences, allowing the public to know what is planned, and after fracking concludes, allowing the public to see what actually went into the ground.

Under the bill, fracking chemicals would be identified in a number of ways, including the Chemical Abstracts Service number (CAS), a unique identifier that clearly identifies each substance. Drillers would not be able to merely disclose a product's trade name, which often fails to identify what chemicals are in a product.

The oil and gas industry has led opposition to the reforms called for in the FRAC Act, claiming that the chemicals used in the fracturing process should be considered trade secrets and not disclosed to the public (this excuse was also used to delay disclosure of the identities of dispersants used on the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010). However, the FRAC Act does not require the disclosure of specific, proprietary chemical formulas except in the case of a medical emergency, where health professionals need to know the information in order to treat victims of exposure to the chemicals.

Many groups working to protect environmental and public health also want drillers to report on the chemical constituents of any wastes produced by oil and gas development activities, along with information about where the waste is disposed. This data is essential to any attempt to investigate potential contamination of water, air, and soil. Additionally, advocates have called for drilling companies to provide notices in local newspapers and direct mailings to residents and businesses in areas potentially impacted by their activities.

According to environmental advocates, greater transparency in the oil and gas industry will allow citizens to monitor industry activities and hold drillers accountable for harmful impacts. They point to numerous instances of excessive industry influence over federal and state regulators as evidence of the need for an informed public to defend against industry abuses and inadequate government regulation.

Another of the bill's cosponsors, Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), stated: "We need to know exactly what chemicals are being injected into the ground and we must ensure that the industry is not exempt from basic environmental safeguards like the Safe Drinking Water Act. The FRAC Act is an important first step toward protecting people from the risks of hydraulic fracturing."

The House version of the FRAC Act is now in the Energy and Commerce Committee. Strong anti-regulatory sentiment among committee Republicans presents an enormous challenge to further progress on this bill. The Senate version has been referred to the Environment and Public Works Committee.

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