Sunday, December 27, 2009

In New Gas Wells, More Drilling Chemicals Remain Underground

Another article that illustrates what a fracking mistake it is to not push for regulations on the county level.

by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica - December 27, 2009 8:12 am EST
This story was co-published with Politico [1].

For more than a decade the energy industry has steadfastly argued before courts, Congress and the public that the federal law protecting drinking water should not be applied to hydraulic fracturing [2], the industrial process that is essential to extracting the nation's vast natural gas reserves. In 2005 Congress, persuaded, passed a law prohibiting such regulation.

Now an important part of that argument -- that most of the millions of gallons of toxic chemicals that drillers inject underground are removed for safe disposal, and are not permanently discarded inside the earth -- does not apply to drilling in many of the nation's booming new gas fields.

Three company spokesmen and a regulatory official said in separate interviews with ProPublica that as much as 85 percent of the fluids used during hydraulic fracturing is being left underground after wells are drilled in the Marcellus Shale, the massive gas deposit that stretches from New York to Tennessee.

That means that for each modern gas well drilled in the Marcellus and places like it, more than three million gallons of chemically tainted wastewater could be left in the ground forever. Drilling companies say that chemicals make up less than 1 percent of that fluid. But by volume, those chemicals alone still amount to 34,000 gallons in a typical well.

These disclosures raise new questions about why the Safe Drinking Water Act, the federal law that regulates fluids injected underground so they don't contaminate drinking water aquifers, should not apply to hydraulic fracturing, and whether the thinking behind Congress' 2005 vote to shield drilling from regulation is still valid.

When lawmakers approved that exemption, it was generally accepted that only about 30 percent of the fluids stayed in the ground. At the time, fracturing was also used in far fewer wells than it is today and required far less fluid. Ninety percent of the nation's wells now rely on the process, which is widely credited for making it financially feasible to tap into the Marcellus Shale and other new gas deposits.

Congress is considering a bill that would repeal the exemption, and has directed the Environmental Protection Agency to undertake a fresh study of how hydraulic fracturing may affect drinking water supplies. But the government faces stiff pressure from the energy industry [3] to maintain the status quo -- in which gas drilling is regulated state by state -- as companies race to exploit the nation's vast shale deposits and meet the growing demand for cleaner fuel. Just this month, Exxon announced it would spend some $31 billion to buy XTO Energy, a company that controls substantial gas reserves in the Marcellus -- but only on the condition that Congress doesn't enact laws on fracturing that make drilling "commercially impracticable." More>>>