The Obama administration urged gas companies to voluntarily disclose the toxic chemicals they inject in the ground in a type of natural gas exploration that uses hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
If companies rebuff the request — a seemingly unlikely event — environmental regulators could get tough.
In letters sent Thursday to nine leading providers of fracking services, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it is seeking data for the first time on the "chemical composition" of the drilling fluids and their hazards to human health.
The information is vital to the success of the agency's scientific review of fracking's impact on drinking water. Currently, there is no federal regulation of the poorly understood practice and a series of patchy state laws.
Full cooperation from gas firms is expected, EPA declared to the press.
"If not, EPA is prepared to use its authorities to require the information needed to carry out its study," it said.
Fracking giant Halliburton, a recipient of one of the letters, told SolveClimate News that it "will of course fully cooperate with the EPA's request."
A spokesperson for Schlumberger, a drilling-services contractor, said it, too, "will cooperate."
"We look forward to working with the agency to help ensure that this study draws on the best science and data," Stephen Harris told SolveClimate News.
Likewise, Baker Hughes, the oilfield services company, said it will comply: "We support what they're trying to do in terms of a fact-based, scientific study of hydraulic fracturing," Gary Flaharty, vice president of investor of relations, told SolveClimate News.
Some in the industry welcomed the EPA disclosure as a way to give fracking a credibility boost.
"We believe the EPA study presents an important opportunity to demonstrate once again that fracturing technology is safely managed, efficiently used, and well-regulated by the states," said Jeff Eshelman, spokesman for the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), a national trade association.
The controversial process pumps millions of gallons of water, chemicals, sand or plastic beads at high pressure deep into horizontal wells to pry loose gas from shale rock.
The chemicals used in the drilling fluids, developed by Halliburton in 1949, are exempt from regulation under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. The industry has been permitted to protect the list of chemicals as trade secrets.
Fracking fluids are known to contain human carcinogens, including benzene and naphthalene, as well as neurotoxins and endocrine disruptors.
Kate Sinding of the Natural Resources Defense Council expressed cautious optimism with companies' eagerness to cooperate with EPA.
"In the past [their practice] has been to hide behind this trade-secret, proprietary information veil," she told SolveClimate News, adding that pressure is clearly on to release the ingredients contained in the chemical stew.
"We're getting to a tipping point where the companies feel like they can't withhold this information from the public anymore."
Industry Says 'Yes' to Disclosure, 'No' to Federal Regs
Sinding said the "disclosure of the chemicals at this point is long past due."
But the industry claims the information is already available to U.S. officials and even the public.
"The information EPA's requesting is already in the possession of Congress," said Chris Tucker, a spokersperson for Energy in Depth, a coalition of natural gas and oil producers that supports fracking.
"Most of it has already been disclosed to state regulators as well, and a lot of it is available on the Internet," he told SolveClimate News.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Ca.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), chair of the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, demanded in recent months that 14 well operators disclose the list of chemicals used in their fracking liquids.
"The companies have responded to our requests, and we are in the process of reviewing and analyzing the data," Karen Lightfoot, a spokesperson for Rep. Waxman, told SolveClimate News.
Jim Smith of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York said fracking chemicals that will be blasted under the gas-rich Marcellus Shale in his state are already published by the Department of Environmental Conservation.
"We don't have a problem with the ingredients being disclosed," he told SolveClimate News.
However, all the industry groups remain staunchly opposed to federal regulation.
"We think it's better handled by the states," Smith said. "It would just become too cumbersome for the federal government to handle drilling activities in 30-plus states."
Tucker agreed: "It's well-regulated on the state level."
Many lawmakers see things differently.
In New York, for instance, the state senate voted 48 to 9 in early August to issue a moratorium that would stop permits for drilling in the Marcellus Shale until next May, to give the state ample time to evaluate the risks of groundwater poisoning in the drilling process. The state assembly is expected to take up the bill in the coming weeks in a special legislative session.
"There remains very strong support to passing [it]," said Sinding.
Water Pollution Cases Rise, Industry Denies Fault
As debate rages over fracking's future, water contamination complaints are on the rise across gas country.
Earlier this month, EPA found high levels of methane, benzene and 2-butoexythanol phosphate, a solvent in fracking fluids that experts say can cause kidney failure, in many of the 19 drinking water wells sampled in the tiny ranching town of Pavillion, Wyo., as well as in groundwater connected to the aquifer.
The town has seen a surge in fracked gas wells in recent years.
The analysis was done after residents said their water was making them sick. Residents complained of nausea, vision problems, fatigue, loss of the ability to taste and smell, as well as rare cancers, seizures and liver disease.
Industry officials deny such health claims. Tucker said there is "no proof" tying groundwater contamination to fracking.
"Hydraulic fracturing is one of the safest things that occurs at a well site," Tucker told SolveClimate News. "It's a post-drilling stimulation process, very short. It's done in days."
Halliburton said the chemicals account for less than one percent of the fluid that is injected underground.
While perhaps accurate, that small percentage is deceiving, said Sinding.
"If you're talking about millions of gallons of fracturing solution, you're still talking about potentially tens of thousands of pounds of chemicals," she said. "That's not insignificant at all."
Those numbers are set to rise. Analysts at IHS Cambridge Energy Associates predict shale gas will represent half of total domestic natural gas production by 2035, up from about 10 percent today.
EPA pledged this week to respond to heath concerns while its fracking study, due in late 2012, is carried out.
"EPA will do everything in its power, as it is obligated to do, to protect the health of the American people and will respond to demonstrated threats while the study is underway," said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson.
(Image: Keystone Edge)