Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Fracking Industry Buys Congress

by Sharon Guynup

For the first time ever, federal regulators have scientifically linked natural gas fracking to the contamination of an aquifer, refuting drilling industry claims that the practice doesn’t pollute drinking water.

It happened in Pavillion, Wyoming, a rural area riddled with 162 natural gas wells. Despite a decade of complaints from residents – mostly ranchers – that many were suffering from nerve damage and that local drinking water reeked and was undrinkable, state officials did nothing.

Finally the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stepped in. The agency’s study, released in December, found numerous fracking chemicals in Pavillion’s groundwater, including cancer-causing benzene at 50 times safe levels, plus toxic metals, diesel fuel and other hazardous chemicals.

Residents living near fracked wells in Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, throughout the West and nationwide have filed more than 1,000 complaints of smelly, dirty, foamy or flammable water; severe illnesses; livestock deaths; and fish kills. Complaints, sometimes involving hundreds of households, have risen in tandem with a veritable gold rush of new natural gas wells – now numbering about 490,000 across 31 states.

Still, the fracking industry goes virtually unregulated. Why? The answer is money.

Big oil and gas has reaped billions in profits from fracking. Since 1990, they’ve also pumped $238.7 million into gubernatorial and Congressional election campaigns to squelch oversight – effectively blocking federal fracking regulation. (Republican candidates received three to five times more cash).

Top Congressional recipients include Joe Barton (R-TX), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Steve Pierce (R-NM), and James Inhofe (R-OK) – who claimed the EPA study was “not based on sound science but rather on political science.” The natural gas industry also spent $726 million on lobbying from 2001–2011.

Today, only four out of 31 fracking states have significant drilling rules and the gas industry is exempted from seven major federal regulations. One of these, the “Halliburton loophole” (pushed through by former Vice-President and former Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney) exempts corporations from revealing the chemicals used in fracking fluid – bypassing the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts.

Another loophole leaves hazardous waste – contaminated soil, water and drilling fluids – unregulated by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Still another dodges the Superfund law, which requires that polluters remediate for carcinogens like benzene released into the environment – except if they come from oil or gas.

Fracking, invented by Halliburton, injects water, sand and chemicals into the ground at high pressure, blasting apart shale bedrock to release gas. It takes between one and five million gallons of water to frack one well – a lot for the drought-stricken West.

Up to 40 percent of that water returns to the surface, carrying toxic drilling chemicals and sometimes, naturally-occurring radioactive material. The rest remains underground, potentially polluting aquifers and drinking water. Streams and groundwater can be contaminated by spills, surface wastewater pits, and by millions of tons of chemical-laden dirt removed during drilling.

Today, 65 probable fracking chemicals are federally listed as hazardous. Many others remain unstudied and unregulated, making it impossible to assess the effects on water resources. EPA documents note that some “cause kidney, liver, heart, blood, and brain damage through prolonged or repeated exposure”, and that fracking fluid migrates over unpredictable distances through different rock layers.

Clearly, the natural gas industry needs federal regulation, something President Obama pledged in his State of the Union speech. Now, as the Interior Department drafts new fracking rules for public lands, it mustn’t be swayed by industry: assuring full disclosure of fracking chemicals, well stability, and proper wastewater disposal. The EPA must likewise impose these rules nationwide.

Congress must also pass the Frac Act, repealing drinking water exemptions. Industry-friendly state agencies – like those in Texas that sometimes approve new drilling permits in two days – must also institute real oversight.

But let’s be realistic. Real oversight means we must prevent elected officials from being bought-and-paid-for by Exxon, Koch Industries and other oil and gas companies. Otherwise, federal loopholes that poison water and ruin health will never be closed. To spark real change, Americans must speak up. Loudly.

Find out how much money flows to your Congressperson by reading Common Cause’s “Deep Drilling, Deep Pockets” report online.

Journalist Sharon Guynup’s writing has appeared in Smithsonian, The New York Times Syndicate, Scientific American, The Boston Globe, and © 2012.

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