Colorado No. 2 in carcinogen-laced “fracking” fluids
Denver Post | Allison Sherry
April 22, 2011
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WASHINGTON — Colorado ranked second only to Texas in terms of the number of gallons of carcinogen-laced "fracking" fluids used in oil and gas extraction between 2005 and 2009, according to congressional Democrats.
A 30-page House Energy and Commerce report — the second release in an investigation into hydraulic fracturing — shows that 1.5 million gallons of fracking fluids containing a carcinogen were used in Colorado in that time, compared with 3.8 million gallons in Texas and 1 million in Oklahoma. The report does not show the concentrations of those chemicals or that the carcinogens, including naphthalene and benzene, have endangered drinking water near the drilling sites in Colorado.
State leaders charged with regulating Colorado's energy industry say the report's findings are not a surprise.
"Generally, we know what kinds of chemicals are in frack fluids," said Dave Neslin, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. "We're still looking at it (the report). But from a high level, we know what they are and how they're used and how they're used in other parts of our lives."
But Rep. Diana DeGette, a Denver Democrat and the senior ranking member of the House oversight committee, disagreed, calling the findings alarming and a justification to require all companies to disclose to federal officials what's in fracking fluid.
"It's a chicken-and-egg problem. There's no reporting right now, we don't know what the harm could be," she said. "We've had a lot of anecdotal information about people thinking they're being harmed by frack fluid, but since we don't have a reporting requirement, we don't know what's in there. We need to make sure this is all being reported in an open way."
During the last Congress, when Democrats controlled the House, investigators on the House Energy and Commerce Committee launched a nationwide investigation into fracking, asking 14 large oil and gas service companies to give them the types and volumes of chemicals they use in fracking.
The first part of the probe, released in late January, found that the companies had been using diesel fuel during the oil and gas extraction process.
Findings in the latest report show that the companies use all kinds of chemicals and products in hydraulic fracturing — including the innocuous, such as instant coffee and gelatin, and the more harmful 2-BE, a possible carcinogen, and benzene, a known carcinogen.
The most commonly used chemical was methanol — something Neslin said he knew.
"There are, in some cases, industrial chemicals you wouldn't want to drink," Neslin said. "But you wouldn't want to drink other things that are naturally present either."
Kathleen Sgamma, a director at the Western Energy Alliance, which represents the oil and gas industry, said the report failed to provide examples of where the harmful chemicals affected drinking water.
"Lots of chemicals used in everyday products — even under the kitchen sink — are considered carcinogenic if used improperly," Sgamma said. "The report does not provide any new, relevant data. It merely sensationalizes the use of chemicals in fracking without context."
Colorado's state laws give regulators the authority to ask oil and gas companies what chemicals are in their frack fluids. Though that data is not public record, some companies are voluntarily posting frack-fluid recipes to a Web-based state database.
But what state regulators constantly eye is safe drinking water. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission says it routinely does water-sample tests in frack-heavy areas in the state, such as Garfield and Weld counties, usually at the request of residents.
In those tests, they look for the carcinogens, such as benzene, listed in the House report, Neslin said.
That isn't good enough for DeGette because water sources ribbon through private and federal lands and cross state boundaries. She says she expects to hold House hearings on the issue.
"The vast majority of states don't require any reporting at all," DeGette said. "It's disingenuous to say that the state laws are taking care of it. . . . We need a clear sense and a clear standard for what they have to report."
Environmental groups, such as Durango's Oil and Gas Accountability Project and Fort Collins' Clean Water Action, agree with DeGette.
"There may be very serious concerns with regards to the chemicals, specifically the carcinogens that may be left and find their way to the surface or the groundwater," said Gary Wockner, Colorado director for Clean Water Action.
Whether frack fluids are hurting the drinking water, he said, "is a very big question mark."