Official: EPA never set rules for diesel fuel in fracking

By David O. Williams
Real AspenFebruary 5, 2011

A top Colorado oil and gas industry official today echoed the sentiments of Halliburton and a national lobbying group in reacting to a congressional investigation alleging the possible illegal use of diesel fuel in the controversial natural gas drilling process of hydraulic fracturing.

Tisha Schuller, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association (COGA), said the probe conducted by the House Energy and Commerce Committee and submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was correct in assuming the use of diesel is covered by the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). But she said the EPA never set up any rules for regulating the use of diesel in the overall process of hydraulic fracturing, which is exempted from regulation under SDWA.

The report found that 12 oil services companies, including Halliburton, used more than 32 million gallons of diesel fuel in fracking operations in 19 states between 2005 and 2009, including 1.3 million gallons in Colorado.

Tisha Schuller

Schuller, an environmental scientist and geologist, said the congressional report — spearheaded in part by Colorado Congresswoman Diana DeGette — was mostly focused on coal-bed methane deposits, which are much shallower.

“In regards to the report from the Energy and Commerce minority members, first, the memorandum of agreement was focused on the shallowest of hydraulic activities, in coal-bed methane,” Schuller said in an email to The Colorado Independent. “Second, use of diesel for hydraulic fracturing was placed under the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005. However, EPA never went through the public rulemaking process, or even provided guidance to the states in this regard; thus, there was not a regulatory framework for permitting or reporting hydraulic fracturing with diesel through EPA.

“As a result, there wasn’t a regulation to be broken. Finally, the confirmed use of diesel fuels in [hydraulic fracturing] does not infer that groundwater resources have been contaminated.”

Critics of hydraulic fracturing, which involves the high-pressure injection of water, sand and undisclosed chemicals deep underground to fracture tight geological formations and free up more natural gas, say it can lead to groundwater contamination. Industry officials say it’s a decades-old and proven process that has never been shown to have contaminated groundwater.

DeGette has introduced legislation to remove the Safe Drinking Water exemption granted hydraulic fracturing in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, during the Bush administration. DeGette wants the chemicals made public; while industry officials claim the chemical formulas are proprietary information.

That SDWA exemption has been dubbed the Halliburton loophole for the oil services company that perfected the process, and because former George W. Bush Vice President Dick Cheney used to be the company’s CEO.

“The industry, in its haste to take advantage of pro-energy political policies of the Bush-Cheney Era, have used processes and chemicals that, in hindsight, have been detrimental in destroying our water and air quality in Colorado, especially in the gaslands in Garfield County and Northwest Colorado, where fracking is prevalent,” said Leslie Robinson, chair of the grassroots activist group Grand Valley Citizens Alliance.

But Schuller says fracking in Colorado is very well-regulated, including by the state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC). COGA on Thursday announced it has withdrawn a lawsuit challenging revised COGCC drilling regulations that went into effect in 2009. The withdrawal of the lawsuit resulted from direct talks with state regulators, who said they made no concessions to the natural gas industry.

“Colorado is a great example of oil and gas development balanced with extraordinary environmental values,” Schuller said. “State regulation covers every aspect of drilling, including hydraulic fracturing. Oil and gas companies’ best management practices and state regulation emphasize preventing groundwater contamination in the two most important areas: surface fluid management and well casing and cementing.”

But Robinson said it’s time for the industry to stop playing legal games and come clean on hydraulic fracturing and the types of chemicals being introduced into the state’s water table.

“Instead of hiding behind the ‘legalities’ concerning the use of diesel and other man-made BTEX compounds under EPA supervision in regards to fracking fluid, the energy industry should instead concentrate on cleaning up their drill sites, where perhaps even thousands of gallons more of fracking fluids, diesel oil, and hydro-carbon waste have been spilled on the ground — which goes directly into our streams and rivers,” Robinson said.

Schuller said it’s time for the rhetoric to come out of the debate. Natural gas drilling is seen as a critical part of the state’s economy, and hydraulic fracturing is a proven way to extract more gas from each well.

“The discussion regarding hydraulic fracturing is important and requires an exchange absent of exaggeration and accusations,” Schuller said. “All sides must engage in a thoughtful, constructive, and reasonable debate as we discuss the nation’s energy and environmental future.”


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