Follow the fracking money for answers

Posted by Christine, February 7, 2012

Sharon Guynup reports for Blue Ridge Press:

A natural gas drilling rush is on in rural North Dakota. And with it, residents are reporting growing numbers of respiratory ailments, skin lesions, blood oozing from eyes, and the deaths of livestock and pets.

Elsewhere, Wyoming and Pennsylvania residents who thought they’d hit the lottery by signing gas drilling leases have watched their drinking water turn noxious: slick, brown, foamy, flammable.

All along, the industry has claimed that natural gas fracking is safe and doesn’t pollute drinking water. But in December, for the first time, federal regulators scientifically linked fracking to the contamination of an aquifer.

An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study found numerous fracking chemicals in groundwater in the rural ranching community of Pavillion, Wyoming. Cancer-causing benzene was found at 50 times safe levels, along with toxic metals, diesel fuel and other hazardous chemicals.

Across the Midwest and nationwide, residents living near fracked gas wells have filed over 1,000 complaints of tainted water, severe illnesses, animal 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? 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 regulation. (Republican candidates received three to five times more cash).

Top Congressional recipients include Tim Murphy (R-PA), Roy Blunt (R-MO), John Shimkus, (R-IL) and James Inhofe (R-OK) – who claimed the EPA study was “not based on sound science but rather on political science.” The industry also spent $726 million on lobbying from 2001–2011.

Today, only four 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/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, including contaminated soil, water and drilling fluids, unregulated by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. 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.

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.