New frac’ing law aimed at greater ‘transparency’
Oil and gas industry officials say that proposed new federal legislation, aimed at requiring gas drilling companies to reveal the chemicals used in what is known as “frac’ing” or hydraulic fracturing, is not needed because there already are state regulations that cover the matter.But opponents say the state’s rules are inadequate, and are supporting the legislation, recently introduced by U.S. Representatives Diana DeGette, Jared Polis, both Colorado Democrats, and two eastern legislators.”We want the reporting to be transparent,” said Randy Fricke, president of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, which operates in Western Garfield County. “We feel very strongly that the fracturing process is having harmful effects on the water supply. We’re at ground zero. We hear from people every day.”An industry spokesman, Nate Stauch of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, thinks differently.”We think that this legislation is completely unnecessary,” Strauch said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.The legislation, known as the FRAC Act (for Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act) would require oil and gas companies to adhere to the 1975 federal Safe Drinking Water Act and “closes an unconscionable Bush-Cheney loophole by requiring the oil and gas industry to follow the same rules as everyone else,” DeGette said in a June 9 statement, the day the bill was introduced.”Hydraulic fracturing, which is used in almost all oil and gas wells, is a process whereby fluids are injected at high pressure into underground rock formations to blast them open and increase the flow of fossil fuels,” states a memo released by DeGette’s office. “This injection of unknown and potentially toxic chemicals often occurs near drinking water wells,” which would normally be covered under the provisions of the Save Drinking Water Act.But, countered Strauch, “There is absolutely no evidence that hydraulic fracturing has ever lead to groundwater contamination.”According to DeGette’s office, former President George W. Bush exempted the industry from the safe water act in 2005, creating what is known as the Halliburton Loophole in recognition that Bush’s former vice president, Dick Cheney’s one-time connection with the high-profile gas and oil company.Currently, federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules require that companies file what are known as Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), according to Theo Stein, communications director for the Colorado Division of Natural Resources. On those forms, companies must list chemicals used in the frac’ing process, and the forms are on file with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC).But critics say the sheets permit the companies to withhold certain “proprietary information” from public view, meaning the names of certain chemicals and the formulas that make up a company’s particular frac’ing compound are not public information. This, critics say, prevents citizens from knowing exactly what is going into the ground around them.Colorado regulations until recently required only that the drilling companies provide information about chemicals used in “downhole” or mining activities that reach a volume threshold of at least 500 pounds per quarter, or every three months.But the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation recently passed additional rules regulating the companies, including provisions that require that companies keep an inventory of all the chemicals used in the frac’ing process.He explained that if some incident occurs involving the gas wells, such as in 2008 when a Durango nurse grew gravely ill after treating a gas field worker who had been doused in frac’ing fluids, the inventory is to be passed on to local health care officials for use in determining treatments.The list is not available to the general public, however, which critics see as a problem.”If toxic, cancer causing chemicals are being used [in these processes],” said Matt Garrington of Environment Colorado, “the public has a right to know.”The FRAC Act contains similar protections for proprietary information.”Proprietary information would be protected – the oil and gas companies would disclose the chemical constituents, not their proprietary formulas, to the federal government and/or states.” declares the memo from DeGette’s office. “Proprietary formulas will not be released to the public. If someone does happen to get sick, however, these companies would be required to submit their proprietary formulas to the necessary authorities to share with treating medical personnel.”Garrington, who has been following the issue closely, said the bill is sufficient in terms of providing “important information to the public that the public needs to know. It’s just like a can of Coca-Cola, where we know what the ingredients are but the recipe is kept secret. The public will know if toxic chemicals are being used in frac’ing.”Strauch, however, said that “the real issue is not what chemicals are being put in the ground – the real question is well construction.” He said the cement casing of the wells, which sheaths a well as it goes through the groundwater layers and is supposed to prevent contamination, is closely regulated by the COGCC.”There is no possible way the chemicals … could make it into the water table,” he declared, “as long as they [the well casings] are constructed properly.”Strauch said that it is “very rare” for well casings to fail and permit ground water to get into a email@example.com
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