A new report from the Environmental Integrity Project provides further confirmation of both the hazards of fracking for oil and gas and how little the public is allowed to know about it.
As Frontier Group has documented, fracking has extensive public health and environmental impacts. The tens of thousands of wells that have been fracked since 2005 have injected billions of gallons of toxics into the ground and generated even more toxic wastewater requiring disposal. In Pennsylvania, fracking has harmed water supplies at least 209 times since 2007. Fracking contributes to global warming, damages wildlife habitats, and adds to air pollution.
Documenting the extent of fracking’s impacts is difficult, because the major database to which well operators report their chemical and water use, FracFocus, is an industry-sponsored site with limited public access. Citizens may access information about specific wells—including the precise location of the well, how much water was used to frack the well, and what chemicals were used (unless they are claimed as a trade secret)—but are limited to looking up no more than 100 wells per day. As a result, a comprehensive assessment of the impacts of fracking is essentially impossible.
The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) analyzed FracFocus data (EIP obtained FracFocus data from a private vendor) to determine if drilling companies are using products containing diesel to frack wells. EIP then checked whether those companies had obtained Safe Drinking Water Act permits before using diesel, as required by federal law. The key findings of EIP’s report, Fracking Beyond the Law: Despite Industry Denials, Investigation Reveals Continued Use of Diesel in Hydraulic Fracturing, include documentation of threats to the safety of drinking water and further evidence of how flawed FracFocus is.
Groundwater is threatened by drilling companies’ illegal use of products containing diesel. The data analysis revealed that, from 2010 to 2014, “at least 33 companies drilled 351 wells in 12 states using prohibited diesel fuels without required permits in violation of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.” Though fracking operations are exempt from many elements of the Safe Drinking Water Act and the federal Clean Water Act, injection of diesel remains a regulated activity that requires the well operator to seek and obtain a permit. The failure of well operators to obtain permits before using products containing diesel risks contaminating drinking water supplies.
The second discovery made by EIP is that well operators can revise their reports to FracFocus without indicating that a change has been made or showing what the original data was. While confirming the accuracy of its analysis, EIP double-checked data in FracFocus and discovered that six operators who had initially reported using diesel-containing products at 143 wells changed their FracFocus reports after the Environmental Protection Agency expressed an interest in enforcing permit requirements for injection of diesel. The ability of companies to revise their FracFocus filings at will further documents why FracFocus is a poor tool for regulators and citizens to understand the full impacts of fracking.
Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Elizabeth Ridlington is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. She focuses primarily on global warming, toxics, health care and clean vehicles, and has written dozens of reports on these and other subjects. Elizabeth graduated with honors from Harvard with a degree in government. She joined Frontier Group in 2002. She lives in Northern California with her son.