The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday said it would ask nine big natural-gas production companies to volunteer what the industry has staunchly resisted: details about what hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" chemicals they inject into the ground.
Fracking for natural gas involves pumping a slurry of sand, water, and chemicals deep underground at high pressure – cracking open natural-gas-bearing shale deposits and allowing the gas embedded there to emerge. The process has been hailed as a boon for US energy supplies and has single-handedly boosted US natural-gas reserves in recent years.
But a growing number of residents in Texas, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and other states say the technique has fouled their drinking-water wells and even caused the tap water coming out of their faucets to smell like industrial chemicals.
In March, the EPA announced it would study the "potential adverse impact" that hydraulic fracturing might have on drinking water. The agency is holding public meetings in major oil and gas production regions to get citizen, industry, and expert input. First results of the study are expected in late 2012.
Remarkably little is known about the composition of fracking fluids. While a public-relations campaign by the natural-gas industry indicated that many of the chemicals used can be found under a kitchen sink, the industry has long resisted efforts to identify those chemicals. Some lists have emerged, but without crucial details needed to determine impacts on health and the environment, experts say. No comprehensive national study of the practice has been conducted.
"Natural gas is an important part of our nation’s energy future, and it’s critical that the extraction of this valuable natural resource does not come at the expense of safe water and healthy communities," EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in a statement. "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.”
The EPA says its study will focus on the impacts of the chemicals on human health and the environment, as well as on the operating procedures at hydraulic fracturing sites and the sites where fracturing has been conducted.
If the agency does get the information, it would be a major step, citizen activists and environmentalists say. At present, hydraulic fracturing is exempted from federal regulation. But political pressure to reveal what's being pumped underground has produced congressional legislation not only to disclose data, but also to repeal the industry's exemption.
In a scramble to prevent repeal of its exemption, the industry now nominally supports the EPA study, several observers say. Industry spokesmen were circumspect.
"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," Chris Tucker, a spokesman for Energy in Depth, an industry public-relations group, said in a statement. "If EPA believes it needs specific information to ensure its study draws on the best science and data available, we're hopeful the agency can coordinate with our members to ensure it has everything it needs, and uses that information in an appropriate way."
The names that the EPA is sending letters to include a who's who list of gas-drilling companies: BJ Services, Complete Production Services, Halliburton, Key Energy Services, Patterson-UTI, PRC Inc., Schlumberger, Superior Well Services, and Weatherford.
Hydraulic-fracturing opponents in Texas and Pennsylvania, who say the process fouls the air (through diesel exhaust) as well as the ground water, were buoyed by the announcement but remain wary.
"At least the EPA is paying attention," says Don Young, founder of Fort Worth Citizens Against Neighborhood Drilling Operations. "Before they weren't even asking, and industry had carte blanche doing whatever they wanted. What the EPA is doing is good – but only if they take that information and use it to demand the industry stop pumping these chemicals underground."
Barbara Arrindell at Damascus Citizens, a group opposed to hydraulic fracturing in Damascus, Pa., agreed that it was "a good step" but that success could come only if the EPA can extract more specific information.
"The industry likes to say that the chemicals it uses can be found under the kitchen sinks of people’s homes," she says. "Well, I don't have sulfuric acid or benzene or glutaraldehyde or methanol under there. We need to know what they're putting into the ground at specific sites."
Specificity is crucial, agrees Scott Anderson, a senior policy adviser at the Environmental Defense Fund in Austin, Texas. And this time, he says, it may actually happen. The industry has at times listed chemicals it has used – but not at specific sites or with formulations or quantities, he says.
In its letter, EPA requests the companies to provide all that, as well as the Chemical Abstracts Service number for each chemical – a vital number that allows for analysis for health and environmental effects.
While Mr. Young worries whether EPA will really get the information voluntarily, the agency says in its statement that it "expects the companies to cooperate with these voluntary requests.” It continues, “If not, EPA is prepared to use its authorities to require the information needed to carry out its study."
"The industry has pitched such fierce resistance to the idea of disclosing these chemicals," Mr. Anderson says. "Now, we may finally get to see specifically what's been put into the ground."