Vail Valley U.S. Rep. Jared Polis leads charge against possibly illegal use of diesel fuel in gas drilling

By David O. Williams
Real AspenFebruary 1, 2011
Colorado Reps. Diana DeGette and Jared Polis Monday called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to investigate whether 12 oil and gas service companies, including Halliburton, violated the Safe Drinking Water Act by using more than 32 million gallons of diesel fuel in the controversial drilling practice of hydraulic fracturing.

DeGette, a Denver Democrat, and Polis, a Boulder Democrat whose district includes Vail, have been trying since 2009 to compel the oil and gas industry to reveal the types of chemicals used in “fracking,” a process in which water, sand and chemicals are injected under high pressure into gas wells to fracture sandstone formations and free up gas and oil.

The process was exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act under the Energy Policy Act that was passed during the Bush administration in 2005 – except in cases when diesel fuel is used. Oil and gas industry officials claim the fracking process has been used safely for decades, but conservationists and a growing number of community activists in heavily drilled areas of the country claim the process has led to groundwater contamination.

A year-long investigation conducted by the House Energy and Commerce Committee found that 32.2 million gallons of diesel fuel or fluids containing diesel fuel were used in fracking operations in 19 state between 2005 and 2009. The companies admitted limited use of diesel fuel in testimony to committee. In Colorado, the probe found that 1.3 million gallons of diesel fuel were injected.

Any company using diesel fuel in frack jobs must first obtain a permit under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The EPA itself, which issued a heavily criticized 2004 report on fracking prior to its congressional exemption, singled out diesel fuel, stating “the use of diesel fuel in fracturing fluids poses the greatest threat” to underground sources of drinking water.

Diesel fuel contains toxins such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes (also known as BTEX) that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and the EPA have determined can damage the central nervous system, liver, and kidneys over a prolonged period of time.

“Our investigation has shown that for the past several years, the fracking industry has ignored federal regulations and a mutually binding agreement, and injected over 30 million gallons of one of the most toxic chemicals into the ground, potentially contaminating drinking water aquifers in communities nationwide,” said DeGette, ranking member of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. “Today we call on the EPA to determine whether the public has been put at risk as a result of these irresponsible and possibly unlawful activities.”

DeGette again referenced the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act that she first introduced with Polis in 2009. The bill has repeatedly been beaten back by the oil and gas industry and was again shot down late last session as a slew of energy bills fizzled despite public outrage over accidents such as BP's Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The Interior Department is currently considering requiring disclosure of fracking chemicals used on all federal lands.

“This disturbing report lends urgency to passing the FRAC Act, which would have required regulation of all fracking activities under the Safe Drinking Water Act and mandated disclosure of the chemicals in fracking fluids to protect our families' water supply,” DeGette added. “For Colorado in particular, natural gas is an important economic driver. But we must ensure that this energy exploration is done safely and responsibly.”

The probe found that BJ Services used the most diesel fuel or fluids containing diesel in fracking operations, with more than 11.5 million gallons. But high-profiles Halliburton was second with 7.2 million gallons used.

“The findings of this investigation represent a major step toward transparency and public safety,” Polis said in a release. “We need to close the Halliburton loophole, and it is my hope that this will prompt further investigation and action by the EPA on violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act.”

The EPA has already launched another investigation of hydraulic fracturing, and has been conducting information meetings around the country, including one in Denver last summer.

The new congressional report singles out federal and state regulatory agencies for failing to discover the use of diesel fuel, which was expressly excluded from the Safe Drinking Water Act exemption granted in 2005.

In its letter to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson requesting an expanded investigation into the use of diesel fuel, the House committee singled out Colorado regulators:

“In some instances, the officials we contacted expressed doubt that companies still used diesel as a hydraulic fracturing fluid or additive or were unaware of continued diesel fuel use,” the committee wrote, after detailing that the oil and gas services companies admitted to using diesel fuel. “An engineer from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), for example, said that diesel is ‘rarely used' and said he knew of only one time diesel fuel was used in hydraulic fracturing in Colorado.”

That excerpt stemmed from an email exchange between a COGCC engineer and the committee staff in September of last year. Officials for the COGCC, the primary state regulator of oil and gas drilling, have long maintained the FRAC Act is unnecessary because fracking is covered by state rules.

COGCC director David Neslin did not immediately return an email requesting comment. Representatives of oil and gas industries groups – the Colorado Oil and Gas Association and Western Energy Alliance (formerly IPAMS) – also did not immediately return emails.

Late this afternoon, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, issued a statement on the House committee investigation:

“The report of diesel fuel in hydraulic fracturing is an alarming cause for concern, particularly when a resource as critical as Colorado's water is at risk,” Bennet said. “Hydraulic fracturing is an important part of natural gas development and is a process I support when it is done transparently and in accordance with the law.

“I have called for complete industry compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act and full meaningful public disclosure of all hydraulic fracturing fluids. I fought for this disclosure during the Senate energy debate last summer and will keep up that fight. I would also encourage the EPA to include a greater investigation of these alleged diesel violations in its upcoming study on hydraulic fracturing. Clean burning natural gas should play a significant role in our energy future; but that role should never come at the expense of public health.”

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