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Hydraulic fracturing part 2

by Carla J. Dolce

HUERFANO-  Part I introduced the process of hydraulic fracturing (“frac′ing”) used in over 90% of coal bed methane (CBM) wells.  Is frac′ing safe or is it a threat to domestic water wells?  There′s only one answer consistent with the evidence and, if you live near CBM wells, it may not be comforting:  no one knows. 

    The two Denver Post articles mentioned in Part I underscore the disagreement on the safety of frac′ing: the Nov. 17th article by Abrahm Lustgarten from ProPublica highlights numerous examples of contamination related to frac′ing fluids and the Dec. 1 commentary by Kathleen Sgamma, director of government affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States (IPAMS), claims that studies show frac′ing is safe. 

    Jon Haubert, communications specialist for IPAMS, confirmed that the basis for Sgamma′s claim is a 2004 EPA study:  “Evaluation of Impacts to Underground Sources of Drinking Water by Hydraulic Fracturing of Coalbed  Methane Reservoirs,” EPA 816-R-04-003.

    The 2004 EPA study is not a scientific field study.  It′s a literature study in which the EPA  examined existing scientific studies.   The EPA admitted that, “[m]ost of the literature pertaining to fracturing fluids relates to the fluids’ operational efficiency rather than their potential environmental or human health impacts.  There is very little documented research on the environmental impacts that result from the injection and migration of these fluids into subsurface formations, soils, and USDWs.” (EPA Study,  p. 4-1).   The EPA also admitted it “was unable to find complete chemical analyses of any fracturing fluids in the literature.” (2004 Report, p. A1-7). 

    The EPA could not get a list of the chemical components of frac′ing fluids from industry because all frac′ing companies claim their frac′ing fluids are proprietary or trade secrets.   With virtually no scientific research on the migration of frac′ing fluids into underground sources of drinking water (USDW) and not knowing the ingredients of any frac′ing fluids, the EPA made a lot of guesses – educated guesses based on incomplete information. From these guesses the agency concluded frac′ing does not pose a contamination threat to drinking water.

    In a letter to Senator Allard, Weston Wilson, an environmental engineer employed for thirty years with the EPA, described the 2004 EPA report as “scientifically unsound.”  He noted that frac′ing fluids can contain toxic substances such as acids, benzene, xylene, toluene, ethyl benzene, formaldehyde, chromates, and polyacrylamides.  He also noted that five of the seven members of the peer review panel that oversaw the 2004 EPA report were either current or former employees of the oil and gas industry, including one current Halliburton employee, who had an obvious conflict of interest.

    Despite its flaws, the EPA was technically correct when it found there were no proven cases of well water contamination from frac′ing fluids.  It′s true.  There are no proven cases of contamination, because to prove contamination requires knowing what′s in the frac′ing fluid, so well water can be tested to see if it contains the same chemicals.  As long as CBM producers refuse to tell anyone what′s in their frac′ing fluids, no one can unequivocally prove contamination.  All we can do is guess. 

    The incomplete information underlying these guesses is what lawyers call circumstantial evidence, just like the EPA used in it′s 2004 study.  It′s all Laura Amos, from Silt, Colorado, had to connect her adrenal tumor to frac′ing fluid.  That Laura′s water well was contaminated from CBM operations was indisputable given that her well cover blew into the air and murky fizzing water spouted out of the well.  The water tested positive for methane, but no one tested for chemicals used in frac′ing fluids.  The gas producer refused to disclose the chemicals used in frac′ing.  Only after Laura′s surgery for the adrenal tumor and after heated litigation and persistent research did she learn that 2-BE, a chemical known to cause adrenal tumors in rats, was used by the gas producer in a nearby well.  Because her well was not tested for frac′ing fluids, there is no direct proof of contamination.  Yet, the gas producer settled Laura′s lawsuit for a sizable sum.

    Keeping frac′ing formulas secret protects gas producers from liability by making it virtually impossible to prove contamination.   Frac′ing contractors say trade secret protection is necessary to keep competitors from using their formulas.  Yet, this can be accomplished with patents that provide exclusive rights to the formulas and techniques.  In fact,  a search of  US Patent Office records shows that Halliburton has 388 patents relating to frac′ing.  Is the limited additional protection frac′ing companies get from trade secret protection worth the risk to our drinking water supplies?  As you ponder this question, keep in mind that if your well has been contaminated with frac′ing fluid something has gone wrong and that something could also leave your well high and dry.