Comments to Department of Energy Natural Gas Subcommittee — July 13, 2011
Recommendations to improve the safety and environmental performance of shale gas extraction processes and other steps to protect public health and safety.
Close Regulatory Loopholes
Natural gas drilling cannot be done safely within the current regulatory framework. Regulatory loopholes for the oil and gas industry must be closed. Legal hurdles have been set up to limit public protection from and oversight of hydraulic fracturing. Such provisions limit the ability of the public to use the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Toxic Release Inventory under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act to protect themselves from the cancer-causing chemicals injected into the ground during fracking. Closing regulatory loopholes for the oil and gas industry would prevent some of the environmental and public health harm caused by hydrofracking.
- Propose legislative action to repeal exemptions to major provisions of federal environmental laws created just for the oil and gas industry.
- Request that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) add the hydraulic fracturing industry to the Toxic Release Inventory under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act.
Disclosure of Chemicals
In what is commonly known as the Halliburton Loophole, part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 passed during the Bush-Cheney Administration, natural gas was exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). Under this exemption, the natural gas industry does not have to disclose the chemicals it puts into our soil and our water during the hydraulic fracturing (“hydrofracking”) process. Many of the chemicals used in the hydrofracking process are also known carcinogens. To be able to properly regulate the industry and protect the environment and citizens of the United States, the EPA needs companies to fully disclose all chemicals they use in the hydrofracking process.
The Halliburton Loophole did not include diesel fuel. Diesel fuel when used during hydrofracking must be regulated under the SDWA. The EPA is currently undertaking a process to create guidance around how diesel fuel used in fracking is to be regulated as part of the Underground Injection Control program of the SDWA.
- The environmental and health impacts of each chemical used in hydrofracking should be assessed by the EPA, and chemicals should be regulated or prohibited accordingly.
- The oil and gas industry should be required to disclose the amount and name of each chemical used at each well site.
- Disclosure of chemicals should be publicly accessible. A complete inventory of chemicals by site should be available on an agency-maintained website.
- The EPA should be required to develop strong rules around the use of diesel fuel in hydraulic fracturing.
Protecting Water Supplies
Hydraulic fracturing’s potential impacts on both water usage and quantity can be significant. A single fracture of one well may require anywhere from 1 to 5 million gallons of water. Many wells require multiple fractures, some up to 18 times.
With hydrofracking comes an enormous threat of contamination of residential wells, groundwater aquifers and nearby surface water sources such as rivers and steams. From Virginia to Wyoming, hundreds of documented cases have surfaced regarding water quality and quantity problems in residential wells located near natural gas drilling operations. These reports include incidents of water wells being contaminated during and directly following hydraulic fracturing operations. Gases such as methane and hydrogen sulfide have been reported in drinking water, along with murkiness and discoloration of water. Cases of skin rashes and sickness after people have unknowingly showered in contaminated water supplies have been documented. Eliminating oil and gas exemptions within the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act would mitigate some of the contamination issues associated with hydrofracking.
- Groundwater and surface water quality surveys should be conducted prior to any drilling operations to properly assess the effects of the drilling on the water supply. Baseline water testing should be done by independent certified laboratories.
Protecting the Air
While the actual burning of natural gas produces fewer emissions than that of oil or coal, the industry’s push to label it as a “clean fuel” is misleading. When considering the full lifetime of natural gas, meaning from the extraction process to the final use by the consumer, it is at least 60 percent more harmful than crude oil in greenhouse gas production and comparably as harmful to coal. This is in large part due to leakage of methane during the extraction process, the primary component of natural gas and a gas that has 72 times the heat trapping greenhouse capabilities as carbon dioxide.
Eliminating oil and gas loopholes in the Clean Air Act would empower the EPA to enforce regulation of cumulative emissions of well clusters under the national emission standards and require operators to prevent or capture air pollutants with the Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT).
- Direct the EPA to use its authority under the Clean Air Act (CAA) to address air pollution deriving from the entire lifecycle of natural gas production.
Like all industries, many precautions can be taken to limit the frequency of accidents and mitigate their impacts if they do occur.
- Tighten the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s reporting and response requirements for worker exposure incidents at oil and gas exploration and production facilities.
- Regulations need to mandate strong minimum standards for well casings and cementing.
- Blow-out preventers and other spill prevention technology should be required.
- Currently, drilling waste and flowback waters outside of flood plains and the New York watershed are not required to be fully contained and can be stored in open pits on site. These open pits are vulnerable to erosion and overflowing. All drilling waste and flowback waters should be fully contained. Although this will not eliminate all risk of spills or leaks, it will reduce it greatly.
Inspections, Liabilities and Penalties
States and local governments have taken the lead in regulating and policing the natural gas industry, largely due to lack of federal regulations and action but also due to public outcry on the local level regarding the hazards of hydraulic fracturing. Some states have done a better job than others. The federal government should create strong national regulations and enforce them with penalties severe enough to effectively deter industry from damaging the environment and the public health.
- Periodic mandatory inspections of all wells should be required, conducted by or reported to the EPA.
- Adequate penalties for violations must be put in place to deter industries from considering fines as merely a cost of doing business.
- The industry should have full liability in the case of a spill or leak. This should be made clear before drilling begins.
- The federal government should provide sufficient staffing and resources for field monitoring and proper regulation.