GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado - The oil and gas industry should immediately switch to "green frac'ing," until more is known about the controversial drilling procedure, according to former Garfield County Commissioner Tresi Houpt.
Houpt, who last year lost her bid for re-election to the Board of County Commissioners, told the Post Independent in a recent interview that she did not think a moratorium on gas drilling is needed in order to deal with the controversy over hydraulic fracturing, or frac'ing.
She believes the industry will figure out ways to get natural gas out of the ground without posing a potential threat to the health of those living near the drilling rigs, she explained.
"Instead of a moratorium, I think I would disallow the use of chemicals in the frac'ing process," Houpt said, referring to the industrywide practice of injecting massive amounts of water, sand and chemicals into well bores to break up deep sandstone formations and free up the gas and oil to flow to the surface.
"I've seen this industry do remarkable things over the past eight years," she continued. "The technology has advanced quickly and has adapted to people's concerns."
But, she continued, "I have been wanting to say that it's disturbing to me to continually hear the industry say there is no connection that's been shown between frac'ing and health problems." Houpt was discussing recent revelations about families experiencing health problems shortly after gas rigs began working in their neighborhoods.
"The reason we don't see a connection is because we don't know what chemicals are being used," she continued. "We don't know what to test for. There are some types of illnesses that are occurring that hadn't occurred in those areas before, or that are unique to some of the chemicals that we're assuming are being used. But it doesn't tell me anything about the safety of a process to say that, because there's no connection or study that's proven a direct connection, that there's no harm, or potential harm."
Her advice to the industry was, "Disclose all of the ingredients, and show the public that it's benign, and that it will not impact the health of their children, and people will regain some faith in the industry."
What is 'green frac'ing?'
As for the idea of "green frac'ing," which is still being developed, some have argued that frac'ing fluids can be formulated that may not yield as much in terms of gas and oil coming out of the ground, but also do not pose any hazards to humans, wildlife and the environment.
Houpt said she has "great hope" for better information to come out of a recently initiated study of the procedure, which has been in use by the industry since the middle of the 20th century.
"I'm thrilled that they've put a diverse team together to really look at this issue again," she added, "and I believe we have an administration in place that won't decide to take ownership in how the results should come out, and won't challenge the scientific results that do come out." There was an EPA study of frac'ing in 2004, which reported finding no links between the practice and health hazards to nearby residents, but that study has been widely criticized over charges of political interference from Bush administration officials friendly to the gas industry.
The use of the procedure has intensified over the past decade or so, while drilling rigs have moved from remote rural areas much closer to residential communities, and sometimes within those communities. The industry has long maintained that there is no direct evidence that frac'ing can cause health problems to those living nearby.
"I see [articles repeating] that quote all the time, and I don't buy it," she said, "until they show everyone what those chemicals are."
The industry has argued that the chemicals are proprietary information, but also that the information is available to health care and governmental officials when needed.
Researchers, however, have reported difficulty in getting complete lists of the chemicals.
And on Jan. 13, a coalition of 46 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, led by Colorado Reps. Diana DeGette and Jared Polis, and New York Rep. Maurice Hinchey, announced support for full disclosure of the chemicals used in frac'ing of wells on public lands.
Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar revealed last December that the Obama administration had been looking into whether to require complete disclosure of the chemicals where drilling on public lands are concerned.
The Department of Interior estimates that more than 90 percent of the wells on Bureau of Land Management Lands employ frac'ing, and public lands are believed to provide roughly 11 percent of domestic natural gas supplies.