In Nevada, the industry has won initial approval to start drilling across a 580-acre swatch of public and private land, and this month federal officials announced they will allow some fracking in George Washington National Forest - the largest national forest in the eastern United States.
At the same time, scientists are finally getting to the bottom of what's in fracking fluids - with some troubling results. Truthout takes a detailed look at two of these studies, which raise some red flags.
Perhaps the most comprehensive look to date at fracking chemicals was presented in August at the National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).
William Stringfellow, a professor in environmental engineering at the University of the Pacific, lead author of the report, said he conducted the review of fracking contents to help resolve the public debate over the controversial drilling practice.
Fracking involves injecting water with a mix of chemical additives into rock formations deep underground to promote the release of oil and gas. It has led to a natural gas boom in the United States, but it has also stimulated major opposition and troubling reports of contaminated well water, as well as increased air pollution near drill sites.
The team of scientists presenting this work said that out of nearly 200 commonly used compounds, there's very little known about the potential health risks of about one-third. However, they concluded eight of the known compounds are toxic to mammals. Chemicals such as corrosion inhibitors and biocides are being used in "reasonably high concentrations that potentially could have adverse effects," said Stringfellow.
"Biocides are inherently toxic by design," he told Truthout. "They need to be evaluated even if used in small amounts because of their toxicity."
"Produced water can have benzene, which can get into groundwater or volatilize into air. . . . It's not good to either drink or inhale it."
A second study released in October by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) found that despite a federal ban on the use of diesel fuel in hydraulic fracturing without a permit, several oil and gas companies are exploiting a Safe Drinking Water Act loophole pushed through by Halliburton to frack with petroleum-based products containing even more dangerous toxic chemicals than diesel. For example, a drilling company in West Texas injected up to 48,000 gallons of benzene into the ground in September.
Over about two months, Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the EIP and former Director of Civil Enforcement at the Environmental Protection Agency, studied more than 150 records in the industry-sponsored database of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, called FracFocus.
"Five gallons of ethylbenzene can pollute a billion gallons of water."
Fracking with fluids containing benzene (a carcinogen), ethylbenzene (a probable carcinogen) and other highly toxic chemicals is a potential threat to drinking-water supplies and public health, but, it appears to be common practice, according to the EIP's review of product descriptions available online and company disclosures in FracFocus, an online chemical disclosure registry. "Produced water can have benzene, which can get into groundwater or volatilize into air," Schaeffer told Truthout. "It's not good to either drink or inhale it."
High Concentrations of Ethylbenzene
During an interview earlier in November, Schaeffer and a Truthout reporter went over the most recent, complete entries in the FracFocus database. In one of the first disclosure reports, a well operated by Citation Oil and Gas Corp. in Carter County, Oklahoma, had more than 90 gallons of ethylbenzene present in "hydraulic fracturing fluid product."
"Texas is in a record-breaking drought where private water wells and even wells for entire towns are going dry. Every drop is precious so we cannot risk polluting any water with toxic fracking chemicals."
"That's a lot," Schaeffer said. "Five gallons of ethylbenzene can pollute a billion gallons of water."
According to EPI, even the limited data available on FracFocus shows at least 153 wells in 11 states were fracked with fluids containing ethylbenzene between January 2011 and September 2014, with the largest numbers of wells in Oklahoma (77 wells), North Dakota (23), Texas (20), Wyoming (11), Colorado (9), California (5), Ohio (3), Louisiana (2), New Mexico (1), Montana (1) and Michigan (1).
In some cases, the amount of toxic fracking fluids injected into the ground is large. The BlackBush Dimmit well, in San Antonio, Texas, was not the only case EIP found of extensive levels of benzene.
For example, between May 2013 and February 2014, another firm, Discovery Operating Services, reported injecting solvents containing nearly 1,000 gallons of benzene into 11 wells in Midland and Upland counties in Texas.
Sharon Wilson, Texas organizer for Earthworks' Oil & Gas Accountability Project, said: "Texas is in a record-breaking drought where private water wells and even wells for entire towns are going dry. Every drop is precious so we cannot risk polluting any water with toxic fracking chemicals."
The industry has been taking steps to provide what it describes as a cleaner way to frack by developing new fracturing fluids, said Steve Everley, national spokesman for Energy In Depth, a research and education group founded by the Independent Petroleum Association of America. "Companies are investing significant time and resources into developing new fracturing fluids, including some that can be sourced from food material," said Everley.
"They say the dream answer is FracFocus. But it's like 'Screw you; we're not going to tell you.' And if there is something they see they don't like, they just pull their information."
But these alternative methods have yet to be evident in significant use. Meanwhile, concerns among scientists and environmental advocates about fracking continue to mount as more information becomes available about the compounds used everyday during the fracking process from North Dakota to Pennsylvania.
Everley says in addition to alternative fracking fluids, other companies are looking for ways to use less water. "What ultimately guides these decisions is two-fold: what's safe and what will work," Everley told Truthout. "Those aren't competing goals: If one of them isn't being met, then the industry isn't going to do it."
Everley also pointed to states across the country proactively updating their rules to address concerns about lack of oversight, including Texas, which just updated its well casing regulations in 2013 - winning the praise of some environmentalists - and Pennsylvania, which also updated its own well integrity rules back in 2011.
The Disappearing Act
The industry touts FracFocus as its answer to calls for greater transparency when it comes to what's in the fracking fluid. And while many oil and gas companies have started voluntarily entering information in the database, where companies can report the chemicals they use, the system is far from perfect, Schaeffer said. While Schaeffer doesn't want to discourage companies that are providing accurate information from continuing to do so, he explained the system's flaws are twofold: the database is voluntary, and companies can change data at any time.
"They say the dream answer is FracFocus," Schaeffer said about the industry's view of its voluntary database. "But it's like 'Screw you; we're not going to tell you.' And if there is something they see they don't like, they just pull their information."
A gap in the Safe Drinking Water Act - often called the "Halliburton Loophole" - requires permits for fracking with diesel fuel, but allows companies to inject other petroleum products even more toxic than diesel without any permitting requirements or safeguards for underground water supplies.
This is exactly what happened shortly after the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) released its findings in October. A month earlier, a Texas-based oil and gas company called BlackBrush O&G, LLC, reported injecting a mix of crude oil, butane and other fluids containing up to 48,000 gallons of benzene into a well in Dimmit County, Texas. After BlackBrush was listed in a press release summarizing EIP's finding, information in the FracFocus database disappeared. The information showing that up to 48,000 gallons of benzene had been used was deleted.
"They removed the line that showed that they used up to 9 percent benzene" in the fracking fluid," Schaeffer told Truthout.
As of press time, the revised entry in the database lists how much "crude oil" was used, and there is no mention of benzene. Schaeffer used the analogy of a syrup company deleting carbohydrates and sugar from the label after some customers said the syrup had too many calories. So instead, the company just says the product contains "up to this much syrup."
Full Disclosure Needed
Although there are known toxins, such as biocides and ethylbenzene, much uncertainty surrounds the chemicals used in fracking that can cause problems if there is a leak at the wellhead or another path of exposure. Both concentration levels and the full scope of potentially hazardous chemicals remain unknown.
During Stringfellow's August presentation to the ACS, the environmental engineer included a chart. This chart showed the chemical toxicity of chemicals used in fracking fluids, as classified by the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS).
A large slice of the pie chart denoted that roughly 39 percent of chemicals cannot be categorized due to insufficient information. In other words, for about one-third of the compounds identified as ingredients in various fracking formulas, the scientists found very little information about toxicity and physical and chemical properties. As a result, there are unanswered questions.
"To protect public health, Congress should repeal the Halliburton Loophole and the EPA should broaden the categories of fracking fluids that require Safe Drinking Water Act permits."
That's because research is impeded by a lack of full disclosure regulations and industry transparency. A gap in the Safe Drinking Water Act - often called the "Halliburton Loophole" - requires permits for fracking with diesel fuel, but allows companies to inject other petroleum products even more toxic than diesel without any permitting requirements or safeguards for underground water supplies, according to EPI. In addition, the industry has withheld disclosing certain chemicals in the name of trade secrets protections.
In March, a US Energy Department task force recommended changes to improve transparency at FracFocus. Alarmingly, the Energy Department's report found that 84 percent of the wells registered on FracFocus invoked a trade secret exemption for at least one chemical.
"They should have to disclose what they put in the well," said Schaeffer, the lead author of the EIP report. In addition to legally required disclosure, operators of wells that show a high level of hazardous compounds, such as compounds belonging to the group called BTEX - an acronym that stands for benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes - should have to get a permit under the Safe Drinking Water Act, Schaeffer proposes. Precautions, including groundwater monitoring, should also be required for those wells, Schaeffer said.
The scientists identified the eight substances - including biocides - that raised red flags. These eight compounds were identified as being particularly toxic to mammals.
"To protect public health, Congress should repeal the Halliburton Loophole and EPA should broaden the categories of fracking fluids that require Safe Drinking Water Act permits," said Schaeffer. "Without these reforms, we are perpetuating a loophole that allows the unregulated injection of unlimited quantities of highly toxic pollutants into the ground."
During his research, Stringfellow also found a "data gap" when it came to identifying chemicals and being able to detect them in the environment if they were released. "It would be in the public, and industry's, best interests to have full disclosure and transparency," Stringfellow said.
Stringfellow's team found that most fracking compounds will require treatment before being released. And, although not numbering in the thousands, as some critics suggest, the scientists identified the eight substances - including biocides - that raised red flags. These eight compounds were identified as being particularly toxic to mammals.
They're also looking at the environmental impact of the fracking fluids, and they are finding that some have toxic effects on aquatic life.
"Preliminary results show that there is a significant use of surfactants, which can be harmful to aquatic life and therefore may present a risk if there is an exposure pathway such as a spill," Stringfellow told Truthout.
Some scientists have been calling for use of some type of tracer device, such as a color or a chemical, to follow fracking fluids through the environment.
In light of recent research that reveals details about hazardous compounds in fracking fluid, such a tracer would be a useful way to help companies, communities, overseers and policy makers understand how chemicals flow deep underground, especially when multiple companies are drilling in one area. This solution, however, wouldn't track the leaching of natural gas through old mines or fissures. Such tracers would hold companies accountable to the environment, to landowners and to stakeholders.
In an interview with Truthout, environmental scientist Vanessa Lamers, pointed to another option for trying to track fracking fluids that enter the environment. Recent research has shown how guar gum, a gelling agent frequently used in fracking fluid, could be used as an "indicator compound."
If the presence of guar gum is found in a creek, for instance, scientists could conclude the water was exposed to fracking fluid at some point, said Lamers, who, during her graduate studies at Yale, spent about a year in Washington County studying the impacts of fracking on water. "Unless someone has a guar gum Factory near their house," the gelling agent is not something found commonly in ground or drinking water, Lamers explained.
One drawback to this method of detection, however, is that even if guar gum is detected, it would be hard to pinpoint which company's well led to the contamination.