Natural gas reality: Loophole lets industry pump pollutants into ground

Waste pit on hydraulic fracturing site. Photo by TXsharon, Courtesy Photobucket.

There has been much discussion of natural gas as a “clean” fossil fuel. While natural gas can be relatively clean burning, compared to coal it requires extraction and production activities that can be extremely damaging to the environment and human health.

Our lands protection experts here at the Wilderness Society have spent much of their time over the last few years making the case that the policies of the previous administration allowed for natural gas drilling in the wrong places, with inadequate safeguards, and at too fast a pace.

Unfortunately, a number of bad Bush-era policies for natural gas still remain on the books. One of the most egregious is Section 322 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which addresses a common natural gas extraction practice known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

To access gas reserves otherwise unreachable with conventional drilling methods, producers fracture the subsurface rock formations by pumping thousands of gallons of pressurized water, sand, and chemicals into oil and gas wells or coalmine methane beds. This method is now used in over 90% of drilling operations in the U.S., and especially in “shale gas plays” in the West, Northeast, and South.

However, the act exempts natural gas companies that use fracking from being required to:

  1. comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act and
  2. disclose the chemicals that they inject underground

Thanks to this loophole, oil and gas companies are free to pump whatever they want into the ground without any form of federal oversight or best practice standards.

Even though the industry notes that it attempts to remove the chemicals after the fracking is complete, an estimated 40-60% of chemicals stay underground, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Confusing the issue further, state regulations are in place in ten states but are patchy, inconsistent, and rarely specifically address fracking or require companies to disclose chemicals.

Hydraulic fracturing is one of only two underground injection processes that are exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act. This is troubling, especially because fracking sometimes occurs close enough to underground sources of drinking water to cause contamination when the surrounding rock is shattered and toxic chemicals leak into the water supply. And, the practice is becoming more common in many areas of the U.S. that have not seen excessive drilling before.

Haze surrounding home during fracking near Pavilion, Wyoming. Photo by John Fenton.In fact, there have been a number of extremely worrisome reports from Americans who live near fracking sites, such as filthy, acidic water, or even sicknesses including nausea and headaches. Chemicals found in fracking fluids are linked to cancer, nervous and respiratory system diseases, and birth defects. But, public health officials’ hands are tied when they try to study the effects of fracking fluids, because companies can keep the contents of their own mixture as proprietary secrets.

Natural gas is an increasingly important domestic energy resource, and new policies are on the way that will likely increase its use. We must not commit to a course that seeks to expand natural gas use without assuring protection of human health and the environment near production areas. The Fracking Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act, which has been introduced in the House and Senate, would repeal the Safe Drinking Water Act exemption for hydraulic fracturing operations and require companies to disclose the chemicals that they put underground (but not their proprietary formulas). We are working with our partners to pass these bills, but we need your help because the oil and gas industry will spend millions of dollars to defeat them.

Hydraulic fracturing is a widespread practice, but available evidence suggests more can be done to ensure companies proceed with the practices in a responsible manner. We cannot let this process continue unmonitored at the expense of the health and safety of both of local residents and the environment.

Waste pit on hydraulic fracturing site. Photo by TXsharon, Courtesy Photobucket.
Haze surrounding home during fracking near Pavilion, Wyoming. Photo by John Fenton.