Fracking Beyond the Law

Regulation of the mysterious chemicals used in fracking fluid used in drilling for oil and gas has been pretty much off limits to the Environmental Protection Agency ever since Congress in 2005 stripped the EPA of its authority to regulate fracking fluid under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The 2005 loophole at least was supposed to discourage oil companies from fracking with diesel chemicals, which are especially toxic. Because the diesel chemicals weren’t included in that special exemption, anyone who wanted to frack with diesel was, in theory, supposed to find some other volatile chemical to use instead, or at least ask the EPA for a special permit first. Naturally, that didn’t happen, and the EPA missed out on its one exciting chance to regulate fracking fluid, the secret sauce of water and other stuff drillers use in hydraulic fracturing.

A 2011 congressional investigation found that companies kept using diesel anyway. The EPA didn’t do anything to stop them or clarify its diesel guidelines until recently. Thanks to all that, a new report now shows that Texas has been collecting quite a lot of diesel in their fracking wells. In fact, they lead the nation in diesel.

Using data that the industry submitted in the fracking chemical disclosure registry, FracFocus, and government records, an environmental group called the Environmental Integrity Project identified 351 wells fracked across the nation with diesel fuels between 2010 and July 2014. In Texas, 12,808 gallons of diesel chemicals have been injected into the ground in that four-year time period, the report found. Texas creamed Colorado, the second-most diesel-popular state, by more than 3,000 gallons.

The oil industry argues that the report is unfair because the EPA initially didn’t issue a clear rules on which types of chemicals counted as diesel or how they would be regulated. It was just this past February that the EPA finally gave guidance for drillers on how to follow the Clean Water Act. Since then, the industry’s figures of reported diesel use have dropped.

Others in the industry similarly say they’ve agreed to stop using diesel now that it’s clearly illegal without a permit, pointing to their FracFocus data submit showing a big drop-off of diesel usage recently. But the Environmental Integrity Project report also accuses the industry of doctoring those records, noting that FracFocus has no way to to detect when companies go back and change what chemicals they decide to disclose. The EIP report also says that Halliburton (the Dallas-based oil corporation credited with influencing former CEO/then-Vice President Dick Cheney to write the 2005 Clean Water loophole), sells numerous fracking fluids with high diesel content.

Most of the diesel wells are in South Texas over the Eagle Ford shale and the people of South Texas don’t seem to like diesel very much. “Help us residents of South Texas before we all die,” wrote a resident from Gonzales County in a complaint they filed to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The complaint, obtained by Inside Climate News earlier this year, says that a drilling operator dug a hole in the ground nearby and used it to bury oily drilling waste sometimes with diesel fuel, chemicals and oil floating on it.

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This incident in South Texas is just one of many undocumented and unreported cases where volatile chemicals from fracking operations around the country are contaminating local water supplies, damaging residence health and devastating the surrounding environment in insurmountable ways with little to no regulations or restrictions put on the corporations of this toxic industry.

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