Fracking, Water Contamination, and Benzene Regulation


Hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") has long been a controversial method of extracting natural gas and oil in the United States. Fracking utilizes fluid mixtures to drill into shale rocks at a high pressure to crack open the underground rock in an effort to release the natural gases hidden inside. Until recently, the total contents of these fluid mixtures were generally unknown and many companies protected their fluid mixtures as proprietary secrets. However, in 2011, the United States House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce launched an investigation into the chemicals used in fracking. The Committee asked fourteen leading gas and oil service companies to disclose the chemical contents of the fluid mixtures they used in their fracking processes between 2005 and 2009 and requested the Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA") review the impact of fracking on the nation's natural water supply.

Although critics argue that fracking poses several possible sources of water contamination from the use of fluid mixtures, a recent study by the EPA found that there is no evidence that fracking has led to any widespread or systemic change in the present supply of drinking water. The EPA stressed that any contamination in the nation's natural water supply resulted from isolated incidents which were traceable to a small number of fracking outfits. The EPA stressed that contamination resulted from the offending fracking outfits' failure to meet the current industry-set safety standards. Significantly, only 13 of the 457 spills analyzed by the EPA touched a potential source of drinking water. Therefore, popular criticism that the chemicals present in fracking fluids and fracking wastewater will cause widespread pollution is unfounded.

However, despite the EPA's recent findings, critics continue to stress that fracking poses environmental safety concerns. Specifically critics argue that the chemical contents of the injected fluid mixers are unsafe, particularly in light of the industry-wide practice against revealing the complete chemical breakdown for these fluid mixtures. The 2011 Committee Report reviewed the formulas provided by the fourteen leading gas and oil service companies and found that in at least 297 distinct products, consisting of approximately 93.6 million gallons of fluid mixtures used between 2005 and 2009, at least one chemical component in each product's forumla was listed as proprietary or a trade secret on the product's Material Safety Data Sheet ("MSDS"). However, the gas and oil services companies did identify their use of BTEX compounds, including benzene, in sixty products, in addition to diesel fuel, which contains BTEX compounds, in at least 51 products.

Presently, gas and oil service companies must receive prior authorization under the Safe Water Drinking Act, regulated by the Underground Injection Control ("UCI") program to use diesel in fracking. However, there is no analogous benzene requirement. While benzene is registered as a contaminant, under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, "the underground injection of fluids or propping agents (other than diesel fuels) pursuant to hydraulic fracturing operations related to oil, gas, or geothermal production activities" is excluded from the UCI's authority.

Therefore, in light of the EPA's recent announcement that fracking does not pose a hazard to the nation's water supply, critics of fracking may turn to the regulation of the chemicals present in each fracking fluid mixture. While Congress has not indicated it will enact stronger regulations on the use of benzene and the other BTEX chemicals present in fracking fluids, given recent publicity on the dangers of exposure to benzene, fracking's critics may soon campaign for stronger regulatory control over the use of benzene within the fracking industry.

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