MDN In-depth: A Close Look at the New Democrat Report on Hydraulic Fracturing Chemicals

On April 16, three Democrat Congressional members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Henry Waxman, Edward Markey and Diana DeGette released a report on the chemical contents of hydraulic fracturing products used by the 14 oil and gas service companies. MDN has had a look at that report and finds it confusing, obfuscating and frankly, nothing more than yet another political attempt to bring gas drilling under the oversight of the federal EPA. That is the sole purpose of this report. Let’s dive deeper.

Staffers working for Waxman et al canvassed drilling companies, using the power of the federal government to obtain details on what products and chemicals they use during the process of hydraulic fracturing when drilling for oil or gas. As MDN has described before (but will do so again for those new to the drilling issue), when a company drills first vertically, and then horizontally, it uses a fair amount of water and sand—perhaps 3-4 million gallons of water on average for a single well. Along with the water and sand, which is literally 99.5 percent of what goes down the bore hole, a little bit of chemical mixture is used mostly to lubricate and to prevent bacterial buildup during the drilling process.

Let’s assume it takes 4 million gallons of fluid to “frack” a particular well. That means roughly 20,000 gallons of chemicals (other than water and sand) get used during the process. Not all of the fluid that goes down the hole comes back out. Some of it stays down there “forever,” trapped more than a mile down in the ground, spread out over a distance of perhaps half a mile. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that two-thirds of the fluid comes back out to get recycled and used again. That means one-third, or roughly 6,600 gallons of chemicals stays behind in the hole. Is that a bad thing? Depends on what the chemicals are. Will those chemicals ever seep up into water aquifers? No. At least there’s been no recorded cases of it ever happening in thousands of wells drilled. Remember, it’s down a mile, and the water aquifers are perhaps 300 feet down at most. There’s a mile of solid rock between the drilling and groundwater.

The premise the Congressmen (and Congresswoman) begin with is: “We’re injecting nasty chemicals into the ground, water is in the ground, therefore somehow, someday, some way those nasty chemicals will find their way into water supplies. Fresh water supplies are protected by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), therefore, the practice of hydraulic fracturing should either be banned, or come under the oversight of the EPA.” That is the (kindergartenish) logic used in this new report.

So let’s turn our attention to the report itself. Have a look at one of the centerpieces of the Democrats’ sterling investigation. This is page 8 of the report:

Report on chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing

Notice first of all the shell game that goes on. In the right-most column we are given the “number of products” in which this particular chemical compound is found as used by the drilling companies. That number is meaningless. Perhaps Methanol (which we’ll look at in a moment), is used in all of the fracking compounds—so what? Is it a drop per gallon? Is it a teaspoon? A half gallon per gallon? There is no sense of quantity or proportion—no way of telling exactly how much of that chemical is being used overall. We simply have a column with some nice big numbers in it, numbers that mean precisely nothing.

And so let’s now turn our attention to the chemicals themselves. There are some nasty looking names in that list, aren’t there? Unpronounceable names—names only scientists and those in laboratories would know. But let’s take a closer look.

The first bad boy in the hit parade is Methanol, used in “342” of the fracking products analyzed by the good congressional staffers (ie interns). You may know Methanol by it’s common name of wood alcohol. It’s mostly used to make other chemicals, but around 40 percent of all methanol is converted to formaldehyde and used to make things like plywood, paints, plastics, and even permanent press clothing. Toxic? Sure is, in concentration. But it breaks down and evaporates rapidly. The “half-life” for methanol in groundwater is just one to seven days. So after sitting in the ground for as little as a day, any residual toxicity is gone.

What about Ethylene glycol (1,2-ethanediol). Sounds positively evil doesn’t it? You may know it by it’s more common name: automotive anti-freeze. Let me ask you a question: How much anti-freeze goes into the surface water of our planet each year? Not down a hole in a small quantity where it may stay forever, but dumped out onto the top of the ground or into streams and rivers (after being treated)? Hundreds of millions of gallons?

And the list goes on. Most people know what Diesel fuel is. What about Naphtalene? You may know it as mothballs—the stinky things in your closet. Xylene? A solvent used in printing ink, rubber and the leather industry. Hydrochloric acid? Don’t look now, but it’s in your stomach! A naturally occurring substance in gastric juices that breaks down food when you eat it.

MDN would suggest that more of hydrochloric acid and other of these toxic substances are released into the surface water supplies through railroad car spills, trucking accidents (hauling these chemicals) and from people flushing them down the toilet in their homes, than ever gets into the environment from hydraulic fracturing. In concentration these things are indeed deadly, but most in the list are commonly used every day in manufacturing, and many of them are under your sink, on a shelf in the garage, in your vehicle and even in your closet.

The Democrats’ ploy of saying, “Look at this! Look at this!” is just that, a ploy. Notice at the top of page 8, and throughout the report, reference is made to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. The purpose of this report is to try and build sentiment for regulating oil and gas drilling via a federal agency, the EPA, that does not have that right or responsibility to regulate mining and drilling.

Below is the full report so you can read it for yourself.

  • RHouck

    I will read this in detail, but to call the amount of water used “fair” is already not very helpful. When I gave a lecture on this, I compared the amount used to an olympic sized swimming pool. I thnk it took 8 pools per well, but I don’t now recall. Either way, “fair” is not the right word and should put the reader on guard.

  • Andrew Madeira

    RE Methanol… Half-life is the period of time it takes for a substance undergoing decay to decrease by half. It is a toxic substance.. .what about the other half?
    Should we warn resident say “don’t drink your water for a year or two depending on the groundwater movement which we are completely unsure of?

    How can you pump chemicals into the ground and not expect problems and not expect to have to abide by the clean water act?

  • Paul Cometx NYC

    “MDN… finds it confusing, obfuscating and frankly, nothing more than yet another political attempt to bring gas drilling under the oversight of the federal EPA.”

    Poor MDN just doesn’t get it. Even the drillers now accept that fracking Kool Aid and our water don’t mix, but Jim soldiers on, labeling everything a political conspiracy. To his credit he is not alone. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with him are the Tea Party, the Birthers and the Flat Earth Society.

  • Bethmcgee40

    I didn’t even get past the title of this post to know it was going to be more drivel by MDN…”Democrat Report” ? You are so transparent Jim! Only righties use that poor grammar term to refer to our DemocRATIC Congressional members.

  • Sorry if the truth stings Beth. It is grammatically correct. They are all members of the Democrat party, not the Democratic party. Look it up.

  • otegogas

    The gas industry will not admit that their process is flawed from the very get-go and that they operate deceptively:

    They can’t effectively seal their gas wells, as the Quebec Govt. just revealed 19 of 31 wells they tested were leaking;

    They can’t control stray gas migration, and are responsible for several homes exploding in Ohio and Pa;

    They cannot be trusted to honor their own agreements given the news reports about using millions of gallons of diesel for fracking AFTER signing a memorandum of agreement with the EPA not to;

    All-in-all, the gas industry is their own worst enemy, and they have repeatedly shown that they cannot be trusted to “do the right thing”. Signing a gas lease is a form of Russian roulette!

  • Geobill

    Frac chemicals are very diluted when injected into the Marcellus Shale (parts per million). The Marcellus Shale is a hydrocarbon bearing zone which means that it contains hydrocarbons naturally (yes Mother Nature created them). In fact the Marcellus contains wet gas in many places, which means that the methane gas (CH4) also is associated with liquid hydrocarbons (called oil, condensate, or just natural gas liquids – NGLs). Also in the shale is salty water (not drinkable). So an oil company drills a hole down to the Marcellus and then uses frac fluids under pressure to create a fracture in the shale which helps these fluids flow into the well. The NGLs or condensate is 29% of the fluids produced in some of these wells and is very close in chemistry to gasoline which has a zillion toxic but useful chemicals in it, most notably benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes (BTEX). These four chemicals are noted above in the table to be present in diesel and in some frac fluids. So why are we worried about injecting frac fluid with very very dilute chemicals into a zone that contains 29% pure gasoline with hugely concentrated BTEX in it? Because people not familiar with oil and gas are completely ignorant. Fraccing is done on the oil and gas bearing rock called the Marcellus Shale not on ground water aquifers. Fraccing debate is a NON ISSUE and the silliest thing I have seen in a long time. Who cares if oil companies put 20PPM benzene into a zone that is pure benzene.

    Having vented I will say that the list of chemicals above are toxic in general but are used everyday by all of us. Glycols are a great chemical for keeping moisture in products like hand and face creams, make up, shampoo, etc. Methanol is quite toxic but is used nearly every week by anyone with a car…we spray it on our windshield to clean it.

    BUT AGAIN the fluids naturally in the Marcellus Shale are toxic and adding a few ppm of chemicals changes nothing and does not impact groundwater.

  • keith_d_96

    Don’t forget that 20,000 gallons of chemicals per well, times 50,000, 100,000, or even more wells, is a whole lot of chemicals. All of these need to be transported on-site, mixed, etc. and will be present in flowback and produced water, or any spills, blowouts, etc. So there’s a lot more happening with these chemicals than just during the fracking process.

    And the argument that these chemicals just end up sitting in the wells a mile underground and have to date not been “proven” to have made it back to the surface is ridiculous. First off, while there may be a mile of rock between the shale and the aquifer, there is a six or eight inch tube that provides a direct path that this stuff can flow back through! But there’s a well casing, you say. For how long do you think 1 inch of concrete and 1/4 inch of steel can withstand ten thousand psi, followed by salty flowback/produced water, assuming the casing and concrete were perfectly set along a mile-long bore (and how would you know if it wasn’t)? Most of the earliest wells drilled in PA aren’t yet a decade old (first one in PA was drilled in 2003). Only time (and not science, unfortunately) will tell as to how long a well casing will last in these corrosive conditions.

    If anyone can find conclusive studies done on these well casing lifetimes in PA soil/geologic conditions, after being stressed by tens of thousands of psi, please, by all means, let me know.

  • Thanks for “venting”!

  • Eric

    Has anyone bothered to check out the ongoing developments and improved technologies that are coming online for fracturing? Fracturing is in its’ infancy. Odds are in 5 years the process will be refined and become less of an ecological concern, perhaps it’ll even be a benign method. Progress will be made. Productive optimists will rule the day. Check out this website:


  • Good point Eric. I have covered a number of new technologies for both drilling and for wastewater treatment. I concur, the technology will keep improving.