In the quest for natural gas, fracking companies may be pumping acutely toxic chemicals into the ground. Or maybe not. The problem is, no one knows.
“It’s kind of the Wild West, in that you can manufacture what you want,” says Berkeley geochemist William Stringfellow about the industry practice of concocting hydraulic fracturing fluid, a highly pressurized mix of water and chemicals that’s pumped miles into the ground to extract natural gas. To be clear, Stringfellow isn’t pro-fracking or anti-fracking. He is director of the Environmental Measurements Lab in the Geochemistry Department of Berkeley National Laboratory’s Earth Sciences Division, and as he puts it, he’s just trying to do science.
More specifically, Stringfellow is trying to document the health and environmental risks associated with fracking chemicals—trying, because it turns out that the task is not easy. If knowledge is power, Stringfellow’s findings show that when it comes to fracking, the general public is largely powerless.
Using voluntary inventories and government and industry reports, Stringfellow compiled a list of approximately 200 fracking chemicals used in California and 90 chemicals used nationally. He found huge gaps in toxicity data. A third of the chemicals had no information on mammalian toxicity, two-thirds had none on aquatic toxicity, and over 70 percent had no data on biodegradability. In a recent presentation, Stringfellow declared the “basic information needed to assess risks and environmental fate [due to these chemicals is] unavailable.” Stringfellow identified a few known, problematic chemicals, but suspects there could be more as yet unidentified.
These findings come late in the game. According to an estimate by Environment America, fracking operations have already pumped over 250 billion gallons of fracking fluid into the ground and are on track to continue their activities without disclosing the environmental or health impacts of the chemicals involved. What they are doing is not illegal. Stringfellow says that these knowledge gaps are perpetuated by lack of regulation. “This is a systematic problem,” he says. “It’s not just fracking. It’s everything.”
>What this amounts to is “a pervasive regulatory failure,” agrees Alastair Iles, assistant professor of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at UC Berkeley, who was not involved in the study. Federal and state agencies do not require industry to test the toxicity of their chemicals. Regulations that are in place are incomplete at best. For instance, the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), which requires release of industries’ use of listed hazardous substances, only applies to 683 chemicals—a fraction of the more than 80,000 substances in use today.
Furthermore, oil and gas companies are not required to comply with TRI. Thanks to the “Halliburton loophole” in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, they aren’t required to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act, either, which would require them to disclose possible contaminants to water sources.
Fracking is even less regulated: Not a single state requires complete disclosure of the chemicals used. Even in California, which has one of the strongest fracking disclosure regimes in the country, companies aren’t required to reveal what compounds they use until up to 60 days after a fracking operation. Moreover, they often don’t comply. In April, the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit environmental watchdog group, sent a letter to California Governor Jerry Brown highlighting over 100 violations of California’s public disclosure law for fracking.
Things may soon change for the fracking industry. Fracking operations in California will be required to fully disclose chemical use under the latest version of S.B.4, a state law scheduled to take effect in 2015. The EPA is conducting its own comprehensive study and has indicated that it may require companies to disclose toxicity data under the Toxic Substances Control Act. There is also a growing movement to require that chemicals be designed safely, not just tested and disclosed. Called “green chemistry,” this approach could revolutionize chemical use in the United States by forcing industry to rethink chemical manufacturing. “Changing the chemical system,” says Iles, who helped found the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry in 2009, “is one of the biggest and most important challenges that we have.”
Stringfellow, meanwhile, has his work cut out for him. His research group is currently developing models to explore the risk of fracking chemicals for which we do have information. He sees a window of possibility for the oil and gas industry, which he predicts could become “an environmental leader in green chemistry.”
For that to happen, the Wild West of chemical manufacturing may just need a sheriff.
Sabine Bergmann is a California intern and a former rodeo queen at Arizona’s Orme Ranch.