What’s in your fracing fluid?

Bill forcing drillers to disclose chemicals languishes in House

WASHINGTON – With Republicans gearing up to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives come January, hopes for federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing are beginning to dry up.

The practice – more often known as fracing – pumps millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into wells at a high pressure. The pressure causes the underground formation to fracture and natural gas to flow.

Although the process has been widely used for more than half a century, it recently has garnered headlines because of groundwater and air contamination concerns.

It looks unlikely that the current Congress has enough time to vote on a bill co-sponsored by Reps. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, and Jared Polis, D-Boulder, that requires companies to disclose which chemicals they use during the fracing process. Their bill also would close what is known as the “Halliburton loophole,” which exempts the industry from having to comply with the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act and stripped away the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate the industry.

The cause lost a key ally several months ago when now-outgoing U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D-Manassa, refused to offer his support for federal regulation of fracing. Salazar, who previously spoke out about the need for the government to regulate the process, said he was worried about the economic impact on the energy industry in his natural gas-rich district. During his campaign, Salazar received tens of thousands of dollars from the gas and oil industry, according to figures from the Center for Responsive Politics.

Odds for passage are slimmer yet in the next Congress because of Democrats’ loss of control of the House and smaller numbers in the Senate.

Juliet Johnson, a spokeswoman for DeGette, said the congresswoman has not announced whether she is going to reintroduce the bill during the next Congress, but disclosure of the chemicals could be her chief priority.

“At this point in time, (DeGette is) more focused with the work that still needs to be done this session taken care of, and then she’ll start having those conversations about what’s next and how her priorities are going to fit in,” Johnson said.

Gas and oil industry advocates say federal disclosure is unnecessary, costly and would reveal trade secrets. States currently have the discretion to regulate fracing, but some have lax rules.

“From our standpoint, we understand what the congresswoman is trying to get ... but from where we sit in Colorado, we strongly believe that the states have the expertise and the knowledge that the feds don’t have to be able to do the regulatory activities that are required for the oil and gas industry,” said Doug Flanders, director of policy and external affairs for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.

While odds for passing much in Congress appear small during the next two years, it looks like the Obama administration might be the first to step in.

At a forum last month, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, a former senator for Colorado and brother of John Salazar, said his department is considering whether to require gas and oil companies to disclose the chemicals they use in the fracturing process, but he said nothing has been decided yet.

If the Department of Interior chooses to regulate the practice, it would apply only to drilling on federal lands – which only makes up a small percentage of the fractured wells in the U.S.

The Environmental Protection Agency also recently began a study on the impact of fracing on groundwater and the environment. The agency asked a handful of companies to voluntarily turn over information regarding what chemicals they use in the process. All but Halliburton – which the EPA later subpoenaed for this information – complied.

“The question is how we move forward in a way that we can reassure the American public that what we’re doing is safe and protective of the environment,” Ken Salazar said at the forum.

Tamar Hallerman is an American University intern for The Durango Herald. Reach her at herald@durango herald.com.