This week, a widely reported natural gas story has the industry scrambling to defend their actions: A probe by Congressional Democrats has found that between 2005 and 2009, U.S. gas drillers injected at least 32 million gallons of fluid containing large quantities of toxic diesel fuel into the ground as part of hydraulic fracturing operations.
Strictly speaking, using diesel fuel in frac fluid isn't illegal. But its use is regulated, and drillers have to apply for permits in order to use it -- a small exception to the practice of hydraulic fracturing's near-blanket exemption from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Trouble is, drillers have been using it anyway, sometimes in far greater concentrations than the industry insists are typical, and in apparent violation of the law.
From a letter that was sent to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, from Reps. Henry A. Waxman, Edward J. Markey, and Diana DeGette:
According to EPA, any company that performs hydraulic fracturing using diesel fuel must receive a permit under the Safe Drinking Water Act. We learned that no oil and gas service companies have sought—and no state and federal regulators have issued—permits for diesel fuel use in hydraulic fracturing. This appears to be a violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. It also means that the companies injecting diesel fuel have not performed the environmental reviews required by the law.
An article from the New York Times's Greenwire yesterday does a thorough job of laying out the complexity of the legal status of diesel fuel in frac fluid, which is still unfolding:
EPA officials note that they have undertaken a multi-year study of the safety of fracturing and are working on implementing the diesel regulation authority Congress granted in 2005.
"EPA has embarked on an expeditious effort to clarify the permitting process as it relates to diesel use in hydraulic fracturing operations under the UIC program," said an EPA spokeswoman who asked that no name be used.
"Our goal is to put in place a clear framework for permitting so that fracturing operations using diesel receive the review required by law. We will provide further information about our plans as they develop."
As we noted several months ago, the Independent Petroleum Association of America is suing the EPA to challenge its authority to regulate the use of diesel fuel in frac fluid. The New York Times reports that the case is still working its way through the court system.