Congressmen query oil service firms about fracing fluid contents

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, Feb. 18 -- US House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Energy and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) sent letters to eight oil field service companies requesting information about chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluids on Feb. 18.

“Hydraulic fracturing could help us unlock vast domestic natural gas reserves once though unattainable, strengthening America’s energy independence and reducing carbon emissions,” Waxman said. “As we use this technology in more parts of the country on a much larger scale, we must ensure that we are not creating new environmental and public health problems.”

Markey noted, “Gas can play a very important role in our clean energy future, provided that it is produced in a safe and sustainable way. By getting more information from the industry about hydraulic fracturing practices, Congress can help ensure that development of this important resource moves forward in a manner that does not harm the environment.”

An oil and gas lobbyist, meanwhile, told OGJ, “We’re aware of the request. The technology is proven and it’s safe. I’m aware that [US Environmental Protection Agency] officials have even said so recently. States have done a very good job regulating this since its first use. We’ll work and review the request from Mr. Waxman and Mr. Markey and respond as best as we can.”

Fracing fluid is more than 98% water and sand, the lobbyist noted. Since 2003, under a voluntary agreement with EPA, companies have not used diesel fuel as a carrier fluid when working with coalbed methane wells in association with underground drinking water sources, he said.

‘Continuing effort’
“It’s difficult to know exactly where they’re going,” said Lee O. Fuller, vice-president of government relations at the Independent Petroleum Association of America. “I think it shows a continuing effort to respond to antidevelopment groups who want to make chemicals an issue, whether used in fracing or other aspects of production.”

States have regulated casing and well bores for decades to protect drinking water supplies before fracing became practical, Fuller pointed out. “Raising a chemicals issue in connection with fracing is an effort to create anxiety among people around production areas that is not founded in fact,” Fuller told OGJ.

Waxman noted that when he chaired the Oversight and Government Reform Committee in the 110th Congress, he requested and received information from BJ Services Co., Halliburton Co., and Schlumberger Ltd.—the three largest well-stimulation companies—on chemicals they used in their fluids.

He said data provided by the companies showed that two of them used diesel in their fluids during 2005-07, potentially violating the voluntary agreement with EPA. Halliburton reported using more than 870,000 gal of seven diesel-based fluids, while BJ Services said that it used 2,500 gal of diesel-based fluids in several frac jobs, he said. The two companies also indicated that they used chemicals such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene, which Waxman said could pose environmental risks in their fracing fluids.

“The information provided to the Oversight Committee did not specify whether these fluids were injected in or near underground sources of drinking water,” Waxman and Markey said in a Feb. 18 memorandum to Energy and Environment Subcommittee members. “This is an important issue because injecting the chemicals in or near sources of drinking water could create contamination risks.”

Other questions
The congressmen added that the Safe Drinking Water Act could have been violated if the fluids contained diesel. The responses also did not address how the companies dispose of fracing fluids and whether it was done in an environmentally safe manner, they said.

“Another set of questions involves the practices of smaller companies,” the memorandum continued. “When Halliburton, BJ Services, and Schlumberger signed the diesel [memorandum of agreement] in 2003, the three companies performed 95% of the hydraulic fracturing jobs in the United States each year. Since that time, smaller companies have increased their market share…. Little is known about [their] practices.”

To answer these questions, Waxman and Markey said they sent letters on Feb. 18 not only to Halliburton, BJ Services, and Schlumberger, but also to Frac Tech Services in Cisco, Tex.; Superior Well Services in Indiana, Pa., Universal Well Services in Meadville, Pa.; and Sanjel Corp. and Calfrac Well Services in Calgary. The eight companies have until Mar. 5 to supply the information.

Concerns also have been raised about how producers and service companies dispose of fracing fluid and produced water extracted from wells, the memorandum continued. The Oversight Committee did not request this information at the time. Waxman and Markey said more information is needed to assess the wastes’ chemical contents and determine how it can be disposed of in an environmentally safe manner.

Congress passed funding for EPA to study fracing, and the agency apparently is looking hard at how water will be handled in New York and Pennsylvania where geologic formations favorable for underground disposal are not readily available. “We as an industry are stepping up and trying to deal with this, looking at ways to handle surface impoundment and storage,” the oil and gas lobbyist said. “I’m sure we can deal with it.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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