Oil and gas industry supporters and critics alike say they welcome an impending federal study of the chemicals that go into the controversial mixture known as "frac'ing fluids," although for somewhat different reasons.
Industry critics believe the study will show that chemicals from the procedure already have contaminated some drinking water supplies, and that the practice should be regulated by federal agencies.
Industry supporters, on the other hand, hope the study will confirm what they've been saying for years - that frac'ing poses no hazards to human health.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is poised to take a closer look at the use of chemicals in the process known as hydraulic fracturing, or frac'ing, which involves the injection of massive amounts of mostly water and sand deep into well bores to free up the oil and gas.
Oil and gas industry experts say the process is critical to tapping into deeply buried and tightly locked deposits of hydrocarbons, which heat homes, run engines and are used in countless other ways by modern humanity. And, they say, there has never been proof presented that frac'ing caused groundwater contamination.
Skeptics, however, say the practice has considerable potential to contaminate groundwater supplies, and that the reason there has never been proof of contamination is only because no one has been looking very hard.
They also note that some of the chemicals used in the frac'ing process are known to cause cancer in humans, and point to recent news stories about flammable water coming out of the taps of homes in Weld County as evidence that their concerns are valid.
The EPA did look into the issue once, in 2004, and found no evidence that the practice contaminated water supplies. In 2005, the Bush administration specifically exempted frac'ing from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
According to news reports, the 2004 study has been criticized by some as politically motivated and scientifically unsound. It was discredited by one of the EPA's own scientists as tainted because, this scientist maintained, a majority of the study panel had conflicts of interest.
Now, the recent introduction of legislation in Congress, known as the FRAC (Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals) Act, would give the EPA regulatory authority over the practice.
And as part of a $32 billion appropriations bill passed late last year, the EPA was asked to take a second look at the effects of frac'ing on groundwater.
"We are fine with that," said Doug Hock, spokesman for the EnCana Oil and Gas (USA) drilling company, which has interests in Garfield County.
"We still believe that this is something that is well regulated at the state level," he added. "It doesn't need another level of federal regulation."
Part of the motivation behind the push for more studies was a report that diesel fuel was used in frac'ing fluids up until 2007 in some parts of the country, resulting in contamination of groundwater resources.
Susan Alvillar, of the Williams Production gas operator, told the Post Independent that her research showed that the use of diesel fuel in frac'ing fluids "was discontinued many years ago."
And even if it was used in the early days of gas drilling in Garfield County, she continued, its use was curtailed "at least 15 years ago."
Some, however, remain unconvinced that the fluids represent no hazards, and believe that the EPA needs to get involved.
"Thirty million people in 19 states depend on water from the Colorado River, which flows through Garfield County," said Leslie Robinson of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance. "That is why there needs to be federal oversight on frac'ing fluid."
Pointing out that clean drinking water can be "a sacred commodity" in times of crisis, such as during the recent earthquake in Haiti, Robinson said, "It won't matter how warm we are with the increased development of natural gas through frac'ing methods - life won't exist if we can't drink the water."
Although the frac'ing study is said to be on the EPA's list of things to do, it has not begun yet, officials said last week.
Article Topics: Water