The consumer advocacy group Public Citizen is pressing lawmakers to close loopholes that allow energy companies to contaminate drinking water supplies through a controversial gas extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing.
Public Citizen submitted comments to the Department of Energy’s Natural Gas Subcommittee calling for an end to what is known as the Halliburton Loophole. The loophole was added into the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and exempted hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Hydraulic fracturing is a process for getting at pockets of natural gas trapped underground. Oil and gas companies blast a secret mix of chemicals, sand, water and other substances into the ground at high pressure, fracturing the bedrock and releasing the gas for extraction. The companies have refused to release the ingredients in the chemical cocktails injected into the ground using laws to protect them from revealing company secrets.
According to Public Citizen, some of the chemicals are known carcinogens, and they are not all recovered when the injection fluids are pulled from the ground.
Environmentalists, a number of lawmakers, local communities and Public Citizen have expressed concerns for years that hydraulic fracturing, also known as hydrofracking, was a threat to groundwater supplies and the environment. However, in 2005 Republicans effectively shielded the oil and gas industry from having to obey federal laws to protect drinking water, sending communities scrambling to find some way to protect their water supplies as the hydraulic fracturing process spread from a few western and southern states to the eastern seaboard.
Thousands of new wells have been built in recent years in Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York following the 2005 Energy Policy Act maneuver.
In early August, the Natural Gas Subcommittee will release a report that will recommend steps toward improving the environmental safety of hydraulic fracturing. Public Citizen is calling for not only the loophole to be closed, but for federal agencies like the Department of Energy (DOE), and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to be given the power, flexibility and resources to effectively regulate the hydraulic fracturing process. Public Citizen is also calling on the subcommittee to recommend that companies be required to release detailed information on the chemical stew making up hydraulic fracturing injection fluids.
Some communities have taken their cases to the courts to address environmental damage or in hopes of at least slowing down a steady march of hydraulic fracturing drilling wells across the eastern seaboard.
In May, the State of Maryland filed a hydraulic fracturing lawsuit against Chesapeake Energy Corporation over a spill of hydraulic fracturing chemicals into Towanda Creek on April 19. The creek eventually feeds into the environmentally sensitive Chesapeake Bay, which has special environmental protections that gives the state the latitude to outmaneuver the so-called Halliburton Loophole.
Nationwide, there were nearly half a million active natural-gas wells in 2009, 90% of which have relied on hydraulic fracturing at some point.
There have been an increasing number of incidents and concerns as the process has become more widespread and more powerful. Waste from drilling during a drought in 2008 in Pennsylvania contaminated drinking water so badly that the Pittsburgh area was placed on a bottled water advisory.
In Texas, where there are about 93,000 natural gas wells, six counties with the highest well counts are reporting that a quarter of all children have asthma, well over the state average of 7 percent.
Some Maryland lawmakers floated a proposed moratorium on hydraulic fracturing until 2013, but the bill stalled in the state senate, which ended its legislative session in mid-April.
A number of environmental groups, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, have petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to conduct an environmental impact statement on drilling in the gas rich region of Maryland and Pennsylvania known as the Marcellus Shale. Some organizations have also proposed new stringent gas drilling permit requirements.