On Capitol Hill, momentum appears to be shifting toward federal regulation of a drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing. Last week, the head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent letters to eight oil and gas companies asking for information on the chemicals they use.
Oil and gas companies, including Exxon, have been vocal in their opposition to federal involvement, maintaining that the hodgepodge of state regulations is sufficient. In fact, Exxon is so opposed to federal regulation, it wrote into its recent $41 billion merger deal with XTO that if Congress makes “hydraulic fracturing or similar processes … illegal or commercially impracticable,” the deal is off.
Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson told a Congressional committee last month that the states have the knowledge of local geology to do the best job of regulation. However, a look at the state regulations now in place shows just how limited and inconsistent the oversight is of a practice that some people fear could contaminate water supplies.
“The state regulations vary quite widely,” said Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They have regulations for how the well is constructed, how the pressure is monitored, those kinds of things, but nothing specific to hydraulic fracturing.”
Hydraulic fracturing — or hydrofracking, or just fracking — involves injecting large quantities of water, sand and a mix of chemicals deep underground to push out natural gas deposits buried in rock formations like the Marcellus Shale in New York and Pennsylvania. The chemicals involved have been a closely held proprietary secret by the companies who use hydrofracking, and they claim they would lose a competitive advantage if forced to reveal the cocktails.
The technique has been used in thousands of wells since 1949, and companies say it is necessary to access the vast quantities of natural gas locked in shale formations around the country. Drillers say the process is safe, however there have been spills of fracking fluids, which can included dangerous additives such as benzene, and reports of well water contamination.
Move Toward Federal Regulation
In 2009, matching bills were introduced in the House and Senate aimed at closing a loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act that exempts hydrofracking from federal regulation. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) sponsored the House version of the so-called FRAC Act, and a spokesperson from her office, Lisa Cohen, told SolveClimate that “there is certainly a growing nationwide concern about what’s in these chemicals, and growing support for our legislation.”
Cohen said that the committee’s request for information on the chemical solutions will be an important step in moving the legislation forward.
“Without knowing what’s in these fracking solutions, it is hard to say with certainty what oversight is necessary,” Cohen said. She added that the current state regulatory environment of hydrofracking is “very ad hoc.”
According to a report prepared in June 2009 by Earthworks and the Environmental Working Group, Alabama is the only state with specific regulations on hydrofracking, and those came as a result of a 1997 court case.
Other states regulate the practice as part of their programs for all oil and gas drilling. In Colorado, for example, well operators who want to use “enhanced recovery operations” that include hydrofracking apply for a permit with the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Notably, the requirement of a chemical analysis of any fluid used applies only to other types of underground injection techniques and not hydrofracking; the only requirement specific to hydrofracking is the vaguely worded “description of any proposed stimulation program,” according to a 2009 report in the Fordham Environmental Law Review.
Pennsylvania has some of the most stringent fracking regulations in the country, with requirements for distance of wells from a water source and specific mentions of both the practice of hydraulic fracturing and of drilling in the Marcellus Shale. The state also requires that those wishing to use hydrofracking “provide chemical analysis of the fracking fluids to be added to the raw water.” Colorado and Pennsylvania, as well as New York and several other states, also have specific regulations for the disposal of waste water and fluids produced as a result of hydrofracking.