Critics of hydraulic fracturing, known widely as "fracking," have been pushing hard for natural gas companies to disclose all of the chemicals in the fluids that are used in the process. But what if the companies themselves don't even know what those chemicals are?
Documents from a lawsuit against Texas-based Range Resources suggest that they may not. The documents are part of an appeal that a resident of Washington County, Pa., has made to the state's Environmental Hearing Board. The plaintiff in the case alleges that a Range wastewater impoundment, which holds water left over from hydraulic fracturing operations, contaminated well water. Washington County has been a focal point in the debate over fracking, which uses a high-pressure stream of water, sand and chemicals to tap into shale reserves below the earth's surface. (See the full filing here.)
As part of the discovery process in this case, a judge directed Range to release the full list of chemicals used in its drilling operations, including the components of all the products that are used at every stage in the gas drilling process. But Range says in its filing that it has been unable to obtain from its suppliers the ingredients in many of the products. Range has been inquiring with its manufacturers about the ingredients in 55 different products, including lubricants, drilling fluids, slurry and surfactants, according to documents. But in many cases, Range had not yet been able to obtain the information.
One example on the list is Airfoam HD, a type of surfactant used to release gas from wells. The list indicates that Range sent an email and made a phone call seeking a full list of components of the product, but had not yet received a response. "Phone call and follow-up email requesting that we resend MSDS [Material Safety Data Sheet]. Awaiting additional information," Range's note states.
According to the notes, the company that provides another product, known as Flo Stop P, informed Range that it doesn't actually produce the product, they just apply a label to it and resell it. The reseller could not provide additional information about the contents. Other companies said they would not provide the information without a protective order.
One company, Hi-Mar Specialties, declined to provide additional information about its defoaming agent Hi-Mar DFC-503, saying that the information was "proprietary" and disclosure "would cause substantial harm to Hi-Mar's business," according to Range's filing.
Here's that portion of the document:
"Range admits that it does not have an all-encompassing knowledge of the complete chemical formula of every product used at the Yeager Site by Range and/or its subcontractors, as some products contain proprietary compounds which may not be known to Range and many of the MSDS do not list the non-hazardous components of products," the company's environmental engineering manager stated in another document, posted in full below.
The documents derive from a case that dates back to 2011, when Loren Kiskadden, a resident of Amwell, Pa., first asked the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to look into potential contamination of his well, which is located near a Range drilling site. In June 2011, the DEP concluded that, while chemicals like butyl alcohol, chloroform, methane and acetone were found in Kiskadden's water, they could not be directly linked to Range's drilling operations.
Kiskadden is now appealing to the state's Environmental Hearing Board, alleging that the DEP did not do adequate analysis when it made that determination. An agency scientist also testified in a deposition related to the case that when it reported its findings, the DEP omitted some data on toxic metals identified in its tests on Kiskadden's water. The case is expected to go before the board next spring.
"The fact that Range does not know and cannot determine all of the chemicals used at its drill sites and placed into the Pennsylvania Environment is, in and of itself, almost inconceivable," the plaintiff's lawyer argues in the filing. They also argue that the DEP is "irresponsible" in not requiring Range to provide that information, and that Range should be found in contempt of the court for failing to do so.
The site in Amwell is one of several in the U.S. that federal regulators have been investigating in response to concerns about air and water pollution resulting from fracking operations. The Associated Press reported earlier this year that the Environmental Protection Agency dropped its investigation of a case of suspected contamination in Texas in response to pressure from Range.
Amanda Witman, a spokeswoman for the DEP, said the department could not comment on the case, as litigation is pending. But she said that, under a new law governing oil and gas drilling passed in 2012, companies must provide a report to the DEP within 30 days of beginning production at a well that "includes a list of ALL the chemicals used to hydraulically fracture the well," including both hazardous and non-hazardous chemical constituents, as well as information claimed as trade secrets. Before that law, companies were supposed to disclose that sort of information to the DEP as part of their spill containment and cleanup plans. Witman said that, under current law, obtaining the chemical information is "the obligation of the operator."
Critics say that the DEP can't possibly enforce that requirement if Range itself says it doesn't have a full accounting of all the chemicals used in its processes. "How can Range Resources ever claim they aren't responsible for contaminating the water and air now that they have admitted they don't even know what chemicals they're using?" said Jesse White, a state representative from the 46th district that has been a vocal critic of the natural gas industry. "If they don't know what's in there, what can they test for?"
Range was one of the first companies to announce, in July 2010, that it would voluntarily disclose all of the chemicals that it uses in the fracking process. "It's the right thing to do morally and ethically, but it's also right for our shareholders," John Pinkerton, Range's executive chairman, said at the time.
In 2011, industry groups, with a grant from the Department of Energy, launched an online database, FracFocus, to provide companies with a platform to voluntarily disclose the chemicals they use. But independent studies have criticized FracFocus for providing incomplete information, with many wells not listed in the database at all. Fracking critics say that voluntary reporting requirements are not strong enough.
White said he plans to introduce legislation that would force companies to disclose all chemicals used throughout the fracking process, and would require the DEP to keep a list of the chemicals that companies intend to use in a database before the companies are given a permit to drill. "Range has this very well-varnished public perception that they're disclosing what they're using," White said. "Range has been bragging that they're the first to voluntarily disclose for years now, which is clearly a lie."