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.