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Study Finds Toxins in Fracking Fluid, House Democrats Say

The most widely used chemical in hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracking) between 2005 and 2009 was methanol, "a hazardous air pollutant...on the candidate list for potential regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act [SDWA]," and dozens of other hydrofracking chemicals are known or possible human carcinogens, according to a report issued Saturday by Democrats on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

An investigation of hydrofracking by the committee, which included a request that 14 leading oil and gas service companies disclose the chemical contents of their hydrofracking fluids, found that more than 2,500 products containing 750 compounds were used over the five-year period. More than 650 of the products contained chemicals that are known or possible human carcinogens, regulated under the SDWA, or listed as hazardous air pollutants, according to the minority staff report.

But the sensationalism of the report "belies the banality of the substance," said Energy In Depth spokesman Chris Tucker.

"Fracturing fluids contain things you would never want to drink, that's true. But the only way that would be relevant in a public health context is if those materials were somehow finding their way into potable water supplies underground." But those materials "aren't, don't, and according to regulators, never have" found their way into those supplies, Tucker said.

The American Petroleum Institute (API) reached much the same conclusion.

"We need to be vigilant about health and safety, but this report is about scaring people and discouraging the production of vitally needed energy, which also creates jobs, brings needed revenue for government and increases America's energy security," said Erik Milito, API director of Upstream and Industry Operations. "The report presents a laundry list of chemicals employed, far exaggerates the amounts used, wrongly implies that we don't know what chemicals are used, and completely ignores that they are used safely."

Democrats on the committee, including ranking member Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Edward Markey (D-MA), urged the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy "to make sure that we have strong protections in place to prevent these chemicals from entering drinking water supplies." Hydrofracking fluids also frequently included common and generally harmless components, such as salt and citric acid, and "unexpected" components, such as instant coffee and walnut hulls, according to the report.

"With our river ways and drinking water at stake, it's an absolute necessity that the American public knows what is in these fracking chemicals," Markey said. "This report is the most comprehensive look yet at the composition of the chemicals used in the fracking process and should help the industry, the government and the American public push for a safer way to extract natural gas."

Companies are already required to file Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for each hydraulic fracturing product they report. The MSDS must list all hazardous ingredients if they comprise at least 1% of the product; for carcinogens, the reporting threshold is 0.1%.

The report "is merely a chemical inventory and not actual 'in the field' chemical concentrations," according to analysts with Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. Inc. (TPH). The fact that MSDSs are already being filed makes the implication that companies unknowingly pump some chemicals a moot point, they said.

"This report is evidence that political rhetoric on hydraulic fracturing is not going away, which creates some potential regulatory headwinds for at least the next two years. If (and that's a big 'if') increased regulation slows down the pace of fracturing (via permitting), it would put upward pressure on natgas prices," according to TPH, which questioned the congressional investigation into decades-old hydrofracking technology.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee, chaired by Waxman in 2010, sent letters to 14 companies that engage in hydrofracking around the country -- Basic Energy Services, BJ Services, Calfrac Well Services, Complete Production Services, Frac Tech Services, Halliburton, Key Energy Services, RPC, Sanjel Corp., Schlumberger, Superior Well Services, Trican Well Service, Universal Well Services and Weatherford -- asking them to identify the types and quantities of chemicals used in hydrofracking fluids between 2005 and 2009.

The companies voluntarily provided substantial information, the committee said, but information about some proprietary components was withheld.

"The companies used 94 million gallons of 279 products that contained at least one chemical or component that the manufacturers deemed proprietary or a trade secret. In many instances, the oil and gas service companies were unable to identify these 'proprietary' chemicals, suggesting that the companies are injecting fluids containing chemicals that they themselves cannot identify," according to the report.

It was the second report to be issued by Democrats on the committee based on an inquiry they opened in February 2010 into the potential health and environmental risks associated with hydrofracking of shale gas (see Daily GPI, Feb. 19, 2010). In January they said their investigation had revealed that oil and natural gas service companies had continued to use diesel fuel to produce shale gas without receiving regulatory approval (see Daily GPI, Feb. 1).

The Ground Water Protection Council (GWPC) and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission recently unveiled a website, fracfocus.org, which provides a list of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing. The website allows users to find wells by state, county, operator and American Petroleum Institute number.

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