Hydrofracking Forum raises more questions about safety of chemicals

I’m Michelle Haefele, an economist with The Wilderness Society in Denver. I’m also fourth generation Coloradoan. I grew up hiking and camping in mountains west of home, on our public forests and deserts. I’m normally an early-to-bed-early-to-rise kind of gal, but the other night I stayed up past my bedtime to participate as a panelist in a in a forum about hydraulic fracturing that lasted well into the nighttime hours.

True, I had to sacrifice a bit of sleep, but hopefully after all is said and done, we’ll all be able to sleep a little better if the Bureau of Land Management (the sponsors of the forum) will listen to the concerns of the people, who came one after another to talk about their nightmare experiences living in the lap of the natural gas drilling on the West Slope, South Park, and even in the Denver Metro area.

It’s the chemicals that folks living next to oil and gas wells are losing sleep over. In most states where hydraulic fracturing occurs, the oil companies aren’t required to tell the public what chemicals they are using. So we are asking for federal requirements that oil companies inform the public about the kinds and volumes of chemicals they use in each project.

The oil and gas industry asserts that the chemicals are safe. Well if it’s true that these chemicals are as innocuous as chamomile tea, then they should have no problem disclosing them to us, and communities won’t feel the need to keep the haz mat response team on standby (instead they can just bring crumpets if there is a spill).

Hydraulic fracturing is a technique used by the oil and gas industry to get natural gas and oil to flow through the rocks in which it’s trapped to the well head. The process involves pumping millions of gallons of water, tens of thousands of gallons of chemicals, and sand for each “fracking” project under high pressure into the ground. This process fractures the oil or gas bearing rocks to allow the gas or oil to flow.

Unfortunately, we know it’s not chamomile tea that these companies are injecting underground.

A recent report from the U.S. House of Representatives, Energy and Commerce Committee found that 14 hydraulic fracturing service companies used more than 2,500 hydraulic fracturing products containing 750 different chemicals and other components over a four-year period. Some of these chemicals are known carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, or listed as hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act.

Here in the West, communities and residents near drill sites on Bureau of Land Management leases deserve to know what chemicals are being injected underground in order to help identify the source of contamination in the case of accidental releases, spills, or water contamination.  Since the industry claims that hydraulic fracturing is “safe,” public disclosure should cause no concern to them.

Oil and gas industry folks also often claim that this issue is being handled by the states. However, a recent study by The Wilderness Society found that out of 33 states where hydraulic fracturing occurs, only Wyoming requires full public disclosure and two others have mediocre disclosure regulations.

Last November, the BLM announced that it was considering a new policy for chemical disclosure on federal leases. We strongly support such a policy, and urge the BLM to follow the lead of Wyoming, which currently has the strongest (although not perfect) state disclosure rules in the nation.

As with Wyoming’s policy, the BLM’s public disclosure policy must require the listing of Chemical Abstract Service numbers for chemical information, rather than relying on Material Safety Data Sheets, as these are frequently not comprehensive.

We would also like the BLM to make a necessary improvement on Wyoming’s policy and greatly curtail the ability of industry to claim “trade secrets” to avoid disclosure.

The Wilderness Society is not opposed to natural gas development on the public lands. However, our economic and biological research has shown that the drilling, extraction, and processing of natural gas have significant adverse impacts on water, air, lands, wildlife habitats, human safety and communities.

These impacts are made worse by the fact that companies enjoy weak regulations, unmerited exemptions from federal environmental laws, and understaffed state and federal regulatory agencies.

If there is anything to be learned from BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill that occurred merely one year ago, it is that lax oversight, poor supervision, and unenforced regulations only lead to disaster. This is a fact as true with onshore fossil fuel operations as it is offshore.