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Report: Frackers Illegally Injected Diesel Into Wells

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Fracking equipment near homes in Denton.
Fracking equipment near homes in Denton.

Energy companies have been injecting diesel underground during fracking operations—without permits to do so—in a dozen states including Texas, according to a new report from the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project. The report, released Wednesday, found that between February 2010 and July 2014, nearly 13,000 gallons of diesel were injected underground in Texas alone. During that period, the study found that 33 companies injected diesel into 351 wells across the U.S.—but because the study relies on self-reported data in the chemical disclosure registry FracFocus, the actual total could be much higher.

The Environmental Protection Agency once had the power to regulate fracking fluids injected into the ground. But in 2005 Congress stripped the agency of nearly all of that authority, in what came to be known as the Halliburton Loophole—only diesel injection remained under EPA’s permitting authority. Diesel contains various known carcinogens, including benzene, that easily seep into groundwater, where they can threaten drinking supplies.

“[The EPA] may not be able to make the majority of wells safer, but they can do it with diesel and they should,” says the report’s author, former EPA enforcement attorney Mary Greene. “It’s not clear to me why they’re not.”

The report casts doubt on repeated assurances from industry players that diesel hasn’t been used in fracking in many years, at a time when the media and academics are challenging other industry talking points. For example, oil and gas companies have insisted that their operations don’t threaten water supplies. But last month, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection said that oil and gas activity had, in fact, damaged water supplies in the state at least 209 times since the end of 2007. Pennsylvania is among the states with the most fracking activity in the country.

In January the Associated Press investigated oil and gas-related contamination complaints in four states including Texas. It found confirmed cases of water contamination in three states, including Pennsylvania, but none in Texas. At the time, Texas Railroad Commission spokeswoman Ramona Nye told the AP the agency hadn’t confirmed any cases of drilling-related contamination in the past decade. The regulatory agency reiterated that point yesterday in response to the new report. Greene, the report’s author, says her review only looked at diesel use, not the possibility of water contamination.

Of the 351 wells mentioned in the report, only 27 are in Texas, but the highest volume of diesel was injected here. The Environmental Integrity Project confirmed that at least 12,808 gallons of diesel were injected in Texas, mostly in counties sitting atop the Eagle Ford Shale.

Because companies control what they submit to FracFocus, and can claim any fracking fluid is a “trade secret” exempt from disclosure, Greene believes the use of diesel is much more common. Her review also found that many operators, after initially reporting diesel use to FracFocus, removed it from their disclosure list after the EPA reaffirmed its ban on diesel; companies can alter their disclosures at any time without noting the change.

Hours after the report was released, the industry news outlet Energy in Depth posted an article calling the research flawed and claiming, among other things, that energy companies removed diesel from their disclosures because of errors in their original submissions. The article mentions one company that said it had listed diesel due to a typo. The article also notes the number of wells cited in the report is a small fraction of the gas wells in the country.

“It only takes a small amount of benzene and some of these other chemicals that are in diesel to contaminate a whole lot of groundwater,” Greene says in response. “And it only takes a very small amount of these chemicals to cause significant health damage in people including increased risk of cancer. You take that coupled with the fact that the wells I uncovered in this report are not the entire universe of wells fracked with diesel out there … this is only the tip of the iceberg.”

Priscila Mosqueda is a contributing writer at the Observer, where she previously interned. She grew up in San Antonio and graduated with a bachelor's in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin in 2012. Her work has appeared in InsideClimate News, The Center for Public Integrity, The Daily Beast, and various Central Texas outlets.

  • Steve Everley

    The inherent flaw in EIP’s report is its accusation that the oil and gas industry violated the law 350 times. Nearly 80 percent of the examples they cite refer to the use of kerosene, which was not classified by EPA as “diesel” until February 2014. EIP is accusing the industry of not following a rule that did not even exist when its activities were actually occurring. Do we retroactively fine drivers for violating a new, lower speed limit based on how fast they drove prior to the change?

    Only a handful of EIP’s examples refer to cases after the Feb. 2014 guidance from EPA — which, by the way, is not a rule or regulation. Even the Natural Resources Defense Council — which wants to ban the use of diesel fuel in fracking — has admitted that states don’t have to follow that guidance. The law that presumably applies here — the Safe Drinking Water Act — does not contain a definition of diesel, so how, exactly, can a company get a permit to use a substance that isn’t even defined by the law under which the permit would be issued? EIP naturally ignores this point.

    Maligning the oil and gas industry with talking points is quite easy, but it’s telling that EIP had to manipulate data and obfuscate legal realities in order to present its case. The public would be better served with a discussion based on facts, not deliberately misleading activist theater.

    Steve Everley
    Team Lead, Energy In Depth

    • claytonauger

      A defense based on semantics. Drivers know excessive speed kills. Industry knows kerosene and other chemicals made for combustion purposes don’t mix well with drinking water. A poison by any other name…..

      • Steve Everley

        EIP admitted there was no evidence of groundwater contamination from fracking with diesel, and yet alleged that companies were putting water at risk. Your “excessive speed” analogy is completely bogus. And yes, companies do know that certain additives could be harmful to water quality. That’s why they cement and case their wells to isolate groundwater. In most wells, you have about seven layers of protection between what’s in the pipe and the water reservoirs.

        Hydrochloric acid is also not something you want in your drinking water, but it’s used in swimming pools. And yet, we jump right in. Why? Because the risk is managed, and we’ve discovered how to safely use products such that they do not harm people and the environment. Your allegation of “poison” is presupposing that the chemical has polluted groundwater, of which — as EIP had to admit — there is no evidence.

        • R1o2b3

          Baloney, Steve. It was a great analogy. EIP did not look into groundwater contamination which is not the same as saying EIP “admitted there was no evidence of groundwater contamination.”, which they did not say. They stated they were looking into the use of diesel. “says her review only looked at diesel use, not the possibility of water contamination.”

          In fact, Steve, EIP goes on to report ” On July 22, 2014, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the “Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) is about to release data indicating that fracking has “damaged” public water supplies 209 times since the end of 2007.”

          ” For example, on February 27, 2014, a North Dakota oil well failed during hydraulic fracturing by Halliburton and spewed approximately 8,400 gallons of oil and up to nearly 3,000 gallons of fracking fluid per day for at least 3 days.54 As recently as June 28, 2014, what became a multi-day fire with more than 30 explosions erupted at a well pad in Clarington, Ohio.”

          The EPA reports: “Materials present on the Pad included but was not limited to: diesel fuel, hydraulic oil, motor oil, hydrochloric acid, cesium-137 sources, hydrotreated light petroleum distillates, terpenes, terpenoids, isoproponal, ethylene glycol, paraffinic solvents, sodium persulfate, tributyl tetradecyl phosphonium chloride and proprietary components. As a result of fire-fighting efforts and flow back from the well head, significant quantities of water and unknown quantities of products on the well pad left the Site and entered an unnamed tributary of Opossum Creek that ultimately discharges to the Ohio River.”

          Given that the TRRC and TCEQ have become an extension of the Oil and Gas industry rather than regulating it, I imagine there to be some groundwater contamination in the Eagle Ford Shale area. Give it time. The Halliburton Loophole has made it possible for these companies to play “shell game” with the carcinogens they pump into the ground.

  • 1bimbo

    well then, why aren’t water quality tests by the state agencies in charge of those things reporting any contamination? maybe they should set a sink of water on fire to make it more ominous.. methinks this scary story is just that, a scary story