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Fracking Operators Illegally Injecting Diesel Fuel, Study Finds

“The public deserves more disclosure and transparency about the toxic chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing,” attorney says.

Deirdre Fulton

Fracking companies have continued to illegally inject diesel fuel into the ground over the last four years, despite repeated denials by the drilling industry, according to a report by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) released Wednesday.

EIP’s report, “Fracking Beyond the Law,” uses self-reported data from drilling companies and federal records to document at least 33 companies fracking at least 351 wells across 12 states with fluids containing diesel from 2010 through early August 2014. Diesel fuels were used to frack wells in Texas, Colorado, North Dakota, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah, Kansas, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Montana without required Safe Drinking Water Act permits. 

The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reconfirmed as recently as February of this year that drilling operators are prohibited from from injecting diesel fuels into oil and gas wells unless authorized by such a permit. In fact, the controversial Energy Policy Act of 2005 — also known as the "Halliburton Loophole" because it was championed by then-Vice President Dick Cheney, a former CEO of Halliburton— exempted fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act except when diesel fuel is used.

"We thought this problem was a thing of the past," EIP senior attorney Mary Greene said in a teleconference. "That's what we've been told by industry for the last decade."

The report also found that companies like Halliburton are still supplying companies with diesel — a potential threat to drinking water supplies and public health because diesel contains toxic chemicals, such as benzene, that cause cancer or other serious health problems, even at low doses — and that the privately-run fracking chemical disclosure registry FracFocus does little to actually protect the public, allowing operators to change or replace previous disclosures, at any time, without leaving any record of or justification for the change.

In addition, "nearly 80 percent of the total volume of fluid injected across all 351 wells identified in this report was marked either as trade secret, confidential business information, proprietary information, or with a non-identifying notation, and was therefore not disclosed or the contents were ambiguously described," the report reads.

This is a problem, it continues, because:

Without access to trade secret information, or the chemical composition of contaminated water used as base fluid (known as “flowback” or “produced water”), there is no way for the public or regulators to quantify, monitor, or curtail the unpermitted injection of diesel fuels under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

“The public deserves more disclosure and transparency about the toxic chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing,” Greene said in a statement.  “The current reporting system must be improved.”

In an email, EPA spokesman George Hull told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that because the Energy Policy Act of 2005 did not define the term “diesel,” EPA didn’t enforce the Safe Drinking Water Act’s permitting provisions for nine years while it sought a “scientifically-supported definition.” After receiving more than 97,000 comments and consulting with industry and petroleum experts, it finalized a diesel definition in February, he said.

Industry groups argue that until February, the definition of diesel did not include kerosene, which was used by a majority of the operators identified in EIP's report. The pro-fracking group Energy In Depth likened the EIP report to a situation in which "officials reduced the speed limit, and then accused drivers of speeding because of how fast they drove before the change."

Meanwhile, the LA Times reported earlier this week that energy companies are fracking for oil and gas at far shallower depths than widely believed, sometimes through underground sources of drinking water.

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