Environmentalists are beefing up efforts to increase regulation of a controversial oil and gas drilling technique as interest grows in tapping vast natural gas fields across the country.
Environment America today released a report calling for increased protection of drinking water as natural gas production grows. And earlier this week, environmental groups appealed a Pennsylvania decision that would allow a new wastewater treatment plant to dump hundreds of thousands of gallons of treated gas drilling wastewater into the Monongahela River each day.
At issue is the hydraulic fracturing drilling process, a decades-old technique that blasts a mix of water, chemicals and sand or plastic beads into compressed rock to open cracks and release trapped oil or gas. Hydraulic fracturing has been used for decades to improve production at aging wells and has recently been used to tap unconventional shale reservoirs like the Barnett in Texas, Marcellus in Appalachia and Haynesville in Louisiana.
But environmentalists and some lawmakers are concerned that fracturing has contaminated water supplies with the chemicals used in the drilling process, has depleted local watersheds and could disturb underground rock formations, releasing naturally occurring substances like arsenic or mercury into aquifers. They are also concerned about the disposal of the drilling fluid mixture after it is pumped back out of the well.
"While natural gas may be better in some aspects than its fossil fuel brethren, drilling for natural gas must not put drinking water at risk," the Environment America report says.
States traditionally have regulated drilling, but efforts are brewing on Capitol Hill to add a new layer of federal oversight.
Democratic Reps. Diana DeGette and Jared Polis of Colorado and Maurice Hinchey of New York introduced legislation (H.R. 2766) this summer that would require drilling companies to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act and disclose the chemicals used in their hydraulic fracturing processes. Democratic Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Charles Schumer of New York introduced companion legislation (S. 1215) in the Senate. Neither bill has moved out of committee.
"We think certainly Congresswoman DeGette's bill requiring disclosure is the first step to hold drillers accountable," said Michael Berkowitz, toxics associate for Environment America and author of the report. "But we definitely think there are lots of ways that gas drilling has the potential to contaminate drinking water, and we need to come up with a comprehensive solution to make sure no Americans have toxic chemicals in their drinking water."
In addition to calling for public disclosure of fracturing fluid composition, the report calls for replacement of dangerous chemicals in fracturing fluids with safer alternatives and sending wastewater to facilities capable of dealing with fluids. It calls for prevention of gas drillers' use of water for fracturing where it depletes local watersheds; drilling only in areas at a safe distance from drinking water; requiring a fee for drilling that could cover cleanup and monitoring, permitting and enforcement; and creating a bonding requirement to make sure companies have the ability to pay for the drilling fee.
The industry maintains the drilling process is safe and well regulated by the states and that it is taking steps to ensure hydraulic fracturing does not endanger drinking water or other water sources.
"The additives involved in fracturing are used to change the surface tension of the water -- a function of the fact that, under normal conditions, it's not the easiest thing in the world to coax water 10,000 feet down a well. In shallower plays, alternate materials are absolutely used," said Chris Tucker, a spokesman for Energy In Depth, an industry-backed group, in response to the report's suggestion to replace chemicals with safer alternatives.
He added that fluids are already being sent to wastewater treatment facilities, especially in the mid-Atlantic. And in response to the call for drilling away from drinking water sources, Tucker said, "Done. America's shale plays reside thousands of feet below water aquifers -- in some cases, tens of thousands of feet."
The industry as a whole appears to be taking steps to appease environmentalists' concerns.
In the past, companies have been loath to disclose the components of fracturing fluids, saying the ingredients were the equivalent of trade secrets. But resistance seems to be waning, as leaders of two gas producers and a service company have recently proclaimed their willingness to make public details about hydraulic fracturing fluids (Greenwire, Oct. 1).
And Chesapeake Energy Corp., which was one of the companies announcing its willingness to disclose drilling chemicals, last month bowed to public pressure and announced it would not drill for natural gas in the upstate New York watershed that provides unfiltered drinking water to New York City (Greenwire, Oct. 28).
The American Petroleum Institute this week put out its second of four documents guiding the hydraulic fracturing process. The current document addresses proper drilling and cementing of wells that are being hydraulically fractured. A previous report dealt with environmental and reclamation practices, and upcoming documents will address cradle-to-grave water handling practices for hydraulic fracturing and surface environmental considerations.
"Natural gas has the potential to serve as an important bridge to our nation's energy future, but we need hydraulic fracturing to develop this gas," API upstream director Doug Morris said in a statement. "Hydraulic fracturing is a safe and proven technology. ... This guidance document helps supplement and support existing state regulations to ensure that development of our nation's abundant natural gas resources is safe and effective."
Pa. discharge concerns
This week, environmental groups filed an appeal in Pennsylvania, calling an agreement between the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Shallenberger Construction Inc. illegal and asking the state Environmental Hearing Board to take a second look at the hasty approval of the company's wastewater treatment plant construction.
The plant would treat polluted water from industrial gas development in the Marcellus Shale, according to Earthjustice, which filed the appeal on behalf of Clean Water Action, and would discharge up to 500,000 gallons of water a day into the Monongahela River.
"We know that Pennsylvania is facing enormous pressure from gas drillers who are generating contaminated water faster than the state's treatment plants can handle it," Earthjustice attorney Deborah Goldberg said in a statement. "Still, the health of the 350,000 people who depend on the Monongahela River for their drinking water should come first. We're asking the state not to skimp on due diligence."
The appeal says DEP is requiring other proposed treatment plants that expect to handle gas well wastewater to limit or monitor the amounts of chemicals they discharge into drinking water sources, but that is not the case with the Shallenberger plant.
"As we detail in our appeal, DEP is failing to set limits on many toxic pollutants known to be in Marcellus drilling wastewater," said Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania state director for Clean Water Action, in a statement. "Carcinogens like arsenic and benzene are required to be limited in our water to protect our health. Yet DEP is not even requiring testing for these dangerous toxins, let alone requiring some kind of treatment."
A spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection said she could not comment on pending litigation.
Click here to read the Environment America report.
Click here to read the API best practices document.
Click here to read the Earthjustice appeal.
Want to read more stories like this?
E&E is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy politics and policy.
Click here to start a free trial to E&E -- the best way to track policy and markets.