US House committee chair asks EPA about groundwater agreement

Nick Snow
Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, Nov. 27 -- A US House committee chairman raised new questions about whether the Environmental Protection Agency is effectively monitoring a 2003 memorandum of agreement intended to eliminate injection of diesel fuel into underground drinking water.

Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said that Benjamin H. Grumbles, EPA's assistant administrator for water, described the MOA between EPA and the three biggest US oil field service companies during a hearing by the committee on Oct. 31.

"This MOA, which appears unenforceable, had been executed to address EPA's concerns that benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylene (the BTEX compounds) were being introduced into underground sources of drinking water during hydraulic fracturing activities," Waxman wrote in a Nov. 26 letter to Grumbles.

He said written testimony submitted by Grumbles said the companies (BJ Services Co., Halliburton Energy Services Inc., and Schlumberger Technology Corp.) "have certified in written reports that they have converted to nondiesel fluids and are in full compliance with the MOA." Grumbles also testified orally that EPA "was monitoring to see if the three signatories were living up to that agreement" on "an annual basis," according to Waxman.

'Informal e-mails'
"Contrary to your testimony, however, the documents EPA has provided to the committee to support your testimony are not certified statements of compliance. Rather, they are three informal e-mails from the companies," he wrote in his letter to Grumbles.

Waxman said the e-mail messages show that EPA contacted the companies to determine whether they were continuing to comply with the MOA 2 days before the hearing. Only Halliburton responded by Oct. 30 when EPA submitted Grumbles's written testimony to the committee. The other two arrived at EPA the morning of the hearing, the lawmaker said.

"Your testimony also states that 'the three companies . . . have converted to nondiesel fluids.' Of the three responding companies, however, only BJ Services explicitly states that diesel fuel is no longer used. This is relevant because a company can be in compliance with the MOA and still use diesel fuel as a fracturing fluid," Waxman continued.

In his Oct. 31 appearance before the committee, Grumbles said the three service companies voluntarily agreed to quit using diesel fuel in their fracturing fluids in 2004 after a study by EPA, the US Department of Energy, US Geological Survey, and several states found that diesel posed the only significant health risk in coalbed methane fracturing operations. The 2005 Energy Policy Act specifically exempted hydraulic fracking of CBM from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act as long as diesel fuel was not used, the EPA official added.

'Less than impressive'
Waxman said Grumbles "assured the Congress and the public that the 2003 MOA was being actively monitored and complied with. But the basis of your statement appears to be less than impressive: a hastily collected set of three e-mails amounting to just half a dozen sentences. If EPA has a solid basis for its assurances that these companies are not using diesel fuel when fracturing oil and gas wells, please provide it to the committee," he told the EPA official. He requested a response by Dec. 16.

He also wrote letters to chief executives J.W. Stewart of BJ Services, David J. Lesar of Halliburton Co. and Andrew Gould of Schlumberger Ltd. requesting documents showing the number of wells the company hydraulically fractured in each state in 2005, 2006, and 2007; the identity and total volume of chemicals and other products used in such operations; the percentage of products recovered from such operations if available; and any documents related to the products' environmental effects by Dec. 17.

Waxman also wrote a letter to Randy Eresman, president and chief executive of Encana Corp. in Calgary, requesting the same information he sought from the service companies by the same deadline. The independent producer was mentioned during the committee's Oct. 31 hearing, where some witnesses alleged illnesses from oil and gas operations in the Rocky Mountains.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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