States already regulate hydraulic fracturing well, officials testify

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, June 8 -- US states already regulate hydraulic fracturing aggressively and effectively, and a federal law would be redundant, two officials told a US House subcommittee on June 4.

“As the head regulator of oil and natural gas development in North Dakota and an office of the Interstate Oil & Gas Compact Commission, I can assure you that we have no higher priority than the protection of our states’ water resources,” said Lynn D. Helms, director of North Dakota’s Department of Mineral Resources.

“Within our respective states, we are responsible for implementing the state regulations governing the exploration and development of oil and gas resources. First and foremost, we are resource protection professionals committed to stewardship of water resources in the exercise of our authority,” said Scott Kell, president of the Ground Water Protection Council and deputy chief of the Minerals Resources Division in Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources.

But a former director of New York City’s Water and Sewer System told the House Natural Resources Committee’s Energy and Minerals Resources Subcommittee that current state regulations are inadequate.

“All the improvements they’ve talked about are welcome. What we’re dealing with is good housekeeping. All that has to happen is to have 2% of the wells that are planned go south and we’ll have thousands of incidents,” said Albert F. Appleton, who is now an infrastructure and environmental consultant.

‘Take the initiative’
“The industry could help by developing biodegradable fracking fluids. I don’t understand, for the life of me, why it hasn’t taken the initiative,” Appleton said.

They testified, with Douglas Duncan, associate coordinator of the US Geological Survey’s Energy Resources Program, and Mike John, eastern division vice-president of corporate development and corporate resources at Chesapeake Energy Corp., at a hearing called by the subcommittee’s chairman, Jim Costa (D-Calif.), to examine issues associated with shale gas production.

“Shale gas actually is not new. It’s been developed for almost 50 years and could play a sizable part in the US energy portfolio. A single play, the Barnett shale, produces 6% of all gas consumed in the US today,” Appleton said in his opening statement.

Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), the committee’s ranking minority member, said, “While this is a great opportunity for the country to have access to a significant reserve of clean-burning fuel well into the future, for some unfamiliar with the oil and gas industry, it has raised concern over the potential impact to water quality and use from the practice of hydraulic fracturing.”

Lamborn said, “Hydraulic fracturing has been used by the oil and gas industry since the late 1940s. More than 1 million frac jobs have been completed in the US since the technique was first developed. And there have been no demonstrated adverse impacts to drinking water wells from the fracking process or the fluids used in the process.”

Another subcommittee member, Maurice D. Hinchey (D-NY), disagreed, saying, “This is not an issue that’s newly important. It’s been around for a long time.” Congress dealt with it when it passed the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974, but a later group of federal lawmakers exempted oil and gas drilling under the 2005 Energy Policy Act, an action which needs to be reversed, he said.

Will reintroduce bill
Hinchey and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) said following the hearing that they plan soon to reintroduce a bill that they initially offered in 2008, which would bring oil and gas drilling back under the SDWA. “This bill would make drillers subject to the same reporting requirements as any other industry under the SDWA. They would have to file reports about what chemicals are in the fracking fluid,” DeGette told reporters during an afternoon teleconference.

Hinchey, who also participated, said, “We are being contacted by people from around the country who report bad experiences from drilling near their property. We’re not trying to do anything revolutionary. We’re trying to restore a safe, solid piece of legislation that was passed back in 1974.”

But Kell noted that reports of problems have been exaggerated. “In recent months, the states have become aware of press reports and websites alleging that six states have documented over 1,000 incidents of groundwater contamination from the practice of hydraulic fracturing. Such reports are not accurate,” he said.

Officials from Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Alabama, and Texas wrote letters to GWPC Executive Director Mike Paque disproving the reports, Kell continued. A sixth official, from Colorado, did not respond because he had not been on the job long enough, he added.

In his May 29 letter to Paque, Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Victor G. Carillo said a majority of 354 active groundwater cases associated with the oil and gas which were reported in the state in 2007 involved “previous practices that are no longer allowed or result from activity now prohibited by our existing regulations.” He said, “A few cases were due to blowouts that primarily occur during drilling activity. Not one of these cases was caused by hydraulic fracturing activity.”

Safely used since ‘40s
Mike John of Chesapeake Energy acknowledged that hydraulic fracturing has become somewhat controversial, but added that it has been safely used since the 1940s. “It is very important to reiterate that these deep shale formations exist thousands of feet below the land surface and are separated from freshwater supplies by layers of steel casing, protected by concrete barriers as well as millions of tons of hard, dense solid rock geologic formations,” he said in his written statement.

John also submitted a fact sheet which listed fracturing fluid additives, main compounds, and purposes, including hydrochloric or muriatic acid, borate salts (which maintain fluid viscosity as temperatures rise), petroleum distillate (to “slick” the water to minimize friction), and ethylene glycol (to prevent scale deposits in the pipe). “Additives used in hydraulic fracturing fluids include a number of compounds found in common consumer products,” the fact sheet said.

But Appleton characterized fracturing fluid ingredients as “a witch’s brew of toxic chemicals, nearly all of which are intrinsically hazardous to the environment.” They are dangerous, he maintained, because they don’t biodegrade: “Once in the environment, they stay there. Most of them bioaccumulate. The remainder volatize, removing them from water and land, but adding them to the atmosphere where they become contributors to global warming.”

Hydraulic fracturing introduces these chemicals into the environment by leaving a significant portion of the fluid underground, where it is free to migrate into groundwater, he continued. More oversight is needed to assure that wells are properly drilled so their integrity is not breached, that the fracking fluids are properly handled and not spilled, and the liquids are properly disposed, he said in his written statement.

Appleton said shale-gas drilling is inappropriate in any area that is a major drinking water source, that zoning is essential particularly in rural areas to minimize impacts of incompatible land uses, and that a system of impact payments to local rural governments will be needed to deal with community infrastructure issues.

‘Inaccurate information’
That drew a strong reaction from one subcommittee member. “Mr. Appleton essentially said the oil and gas industry is making so much money it can afford to be over-regulated,” said Dan Boren (D-Okla.). “Well, natural gas producers in my district are stacking rigs and companies like Frac Tech are laying off employees. I’m proud that I’m supported by the oil and gas industry because it employs a lot of people in my state, and I’m tired of people trying to shut it down with inaccurate information.”

Hinchey pressed Kell for information about oil and gas industry support of the GWPC. Kell said that the group gets its main support from government agencies including the US Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and numerous industries besides oil and gas. “Our opinions are not for sale. Our emphasis is on protection of water resources,” he declared.

Quite a few states already require disclosure of ingredients in hydraulic fracturing fluids, he added. “As a member of the GWPC and an Ohio official, I don’t believe any federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing is necessary,” he said.

When Cynthia M. Lummis (R-Wyo.) asked what impacts federal hydraulic fracturing regulations would have on state programs, Helms responded that Alabama spent 2 years rewriting its regulations in the 1990s after losing a lawsuit brought by an environmental organization. “We’re also concerned that requiring additional regulations will divert states’ resources from other higher priority programs,” Kell said.

When she was asked about this during her teleconference, DeGette replied: “The reason we passed the [SDWA] to begin with is that we decided safe drinking water is a national priority. Also, water like any resources crosses state lines. I’m very proud of Colorado for passing new stringent regulations, but other states haven’t followed it. Further, the SDWA is being administered by state agencies in 34 states already for other industries so this wouldn’t be an additional burden.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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