Congress Releases Report on Toxic Chemicals Used In Fracking

fracking water chemicalsDemocrats of the Congressional Committee on Energy and Commerce just released a new report detailing chemicals used in the toxic gas exploration process known as Hydraulic Fracturing (fracking or fracing). Fracking is a technique used to extract natural gas from oil shale beneath the earths surface. Communities are increasingly concerned about fracking polluting public water systems and the environment, when the chemicals leak into aquifers, rivers, streams and the atmosphere.

While the oil/gas industry has denied any problem, there is mounting evidence that public water systems and private wells are being polluted in areas around the drilling sites. In states such as Pennsylvania, politicians have welcomed Big Oil in with open arms, and thousands of gas extraction wells are expected to be drilled this year. Presently, the natural gas industry does not have to disclose the chemicals used, but scientists have identified known carcinogens and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. The chemicals can most often leak in to the water system in several ways:

Derrick – The natural gas process involves drilling 5,000 feet or more down and a comparable distance horizontally. The majority of the drilling liquid remains in the ground and is not biodegradable.

Well Casing – If the well casing that penetrates through the aquifer is not well sealed, chemicals can leak in to the aquifer.

Fractured Shale – To release the gas from underground, millions of gallons of water, sand and proprietary chemicals are injected, under high pressure, into the well. The pressure fractures the shale and props open fissures that enable natural gas to flow more freely out of the well. These fissures may allow the chemicals to enter the water system. In addition, recent reports suggest that radiation in the ground is contaminating the fracking fluid. This radiation has been showing up in drinking water. For more on that see the NY Times investigative article by Ian Urbina Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers.

Surface Contamination – The gas comes up wet in produced water and has to be separated from the wastewater on the surface. Only 30-50% of the water is typically recovered from a well. This wastewater can be highly toxic. Holding ponds, and handling mishaps can release this toxic brew into the environment.  For some examples, see the video below about residents in Pennsylvania and the impact of fracking on their water systems. Surface evaporation of VOCs coming into contact with diesel exhaust from trucks and generators at the well site, can produce ground level ozone. Ozone plumes can travel up to 250 miles.

fracking process
For more detailed interactive image, see below.

Horizontal fracking uses up to 300 tons of a mixture of 750 chemicals, many of them proprietary, and millions of gallons of water per frack. This water then becomes contaminated and must be cleaned and disposed of.  To date, the oil/gas industry has been secretive about what chemicals are used, and has lobbied Congress for a variety of protections. Much of the contaminated water is taken to water treatment plants that are not designed to process the chemicals and radiation found in fracking fluids.

In 2005, the Bush/ Cheney Energy Bill exempted natural gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act. It exempts companies from disclosing the chemicals used during hydraulic fracturing. Essentially, the provision took the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) off the job. It is now commonly referred to as the Halliburton Loophole.

The FRAC Act (Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemical Act) is a House bill intended to repeal the Halliburton Loophole and to require the natural gas industry to disclose the chemicals they use.

The Safe Drinking Water Act was passed by Congress, in 1974, to ensure clean drinking water free from both natural and man-made contaminates.  Remember the days when rivers were so polluted with toxic industrial waste that they would ignite into flame?

Here’s the introduction from the Democrats report from the Energy and Commerce Committee – Chemicals Used In Hydraulic Fracturing (N.B. click on the link at left to see the actual report and list of chemicals):

Today Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Henry A. Waxman, Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Edward J. Markey, and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Ranking Member Diana DeGette released a new report that summarizes the types, volumes, and chemical contents of the hydraulic fracturing products used by the 14 leading oil and gas service companies. The report contains the first comprehensive national inventory of chemicals used by hydraulic fracturing companies during the drilling process.

Hydraulic fracturing has helped to expand natural gas production in the United States, but we must ensure that these new resources don’t come at the expense of public health,” said Rep. Waxman. “This report shows that these companies are injecting millions of gallons of products that contain potentially hazardous chemicals, including known carcinogens. I urge EPA and DOE to make certain that we have strong protections in place to prevent these chemicals from entering drinking water supplies.

With our river ways and drinking water at stake, it’s an absolute necessity that the American public knows what is in these fracking chemicals,” said Rep. Markey. “This report is the most comprehensive look yet at the composition of the chemicals used in the fracking process, and should help the industry, the government, and the American public push for a safer way to extract natural gas.

During the last Congress, the Committee launched an investigation into the practice of hydraulic fracturing in the United States, asking the leading oil and gas service companies to disclose information on the products used in this process between 2005 and 2009.

The Democratic Committee staff analyzed the data provided by the companies about their practices, finding that:

  • The 14 leading oil and gas service companies used more than 780 million gallons of hydraulic fracturing products, not including water added at the well site. Overall, the companies used more than 2,500 hydraulic fracturing products containing 750 different chemicals and other components.
  • The components used in the hydraulic fracturing products ranged from generally harmless and common substances, such as salt and citric acid, to extremely toxic substances, such as benzene and lead. Some companies even used instant coffee and walnut hulls in their fracturing fluids.
  • Between 2005 and 2009, the oil and gas service companies used hydraulic fracturing products containing 29 chemicals that are known or possible human carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) for their risks to human health, or listed as hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act.
  • The BTEX compounds – benzene, toluene, xylene, and ethylbenzene – are SDWA contaminants and hazardous air pollutants. Benzene also is a known human carcinogen. The hydraulic fracturing companies injected 11.4 million gallons of products containing at least one BTEX chemical over the five-year period.
  • Methanol, which was used in 342 hydraulic fracturing products, was the most widely used chemical between 2005 and 2009. The substance is a hazardous air pollutant and is on the candidate list for potential regulation under SDWA. Isopropyl alcohol, 2-butoxyethanol, and ethylene glycol were the other most widely used chemicals.
  • Many of the hydraulic fracturing fluids contain chemical components that are listed as “proprietary” or “trade secret.” The companies used 94 million gallons of 279 products that contained at least one chemical or component that the manufacturers deemed proprietary or a trade secret. In many instances, the oil and gas service companies were unable to identify these “proprietary” chemicals, suggesting that the companies are injecting fluids containing chemicals that they themselves cannot identify.

How Fracking Can Effect Your Community And What You Can Do About It

Once a communities water system is made toxic, property values plummet. Homeowners end up with homes that can’t be sold at anywhere near their original value. They are forced to live in their un-sellable homes and continue to be exposed to the toxic environment. Fracking can compromise public health and environmental quality.  The map below from the Gasland project shows where oil shale gas drilling areas are most intensive, in red.

fracking map

Here’s a more detailed map from the Energy Information Administration showing “Shale Plays.”

shale map, shale plays, fracking map
Shale Plays – Click for larger image (Source: EIA)

The term “play” is used in the oil and gas industry to refer to a geographic area which has been targeted for exploration due to: favorable geoseismic survey results; well logs; or production results from a new or “wildcat well” in the area. An area comes into play when it is generally recognized that there is a valuable quantity of oil or gas to be found. Oil and gas companies will send out professional “land men” who research property records at the local courthouses and after having located landowners who own the mineral rights in the play area, will offer them an oil and gas lease deal. Competition for acreage usually increases based on how hot the play is in terms of production from discovery wells in the area. The more oil and gas there is to be had, the higher the lease payments per acre are.

And money talks. Homeowners and towns can be attracted to the offer of money for exploitation of the shale. The heavy costs paid are only realized after the deal is signed – costs to the environment, increased industrial traffic through the community, attraction of outsider oil/gas workforce that can stress local community wellbeing, and of course – environmental degradation, and risk to public water systems.

Bryan Walsh, one of my favorite environmental reporters, just published this evenhanded video that looks at some specific examples of toxic fracking related events in Pennsylvania, the heart of east coast gas extraction. While business leaders in the community enjoy the increased hotel and travel related economics, the devastating impact on homeowners and communities can be tragic.

As the video shows, there is a growing conflict between public health interests and business interests. Anytime oil/gas is involved, big money is at stake. Big Oil spends tens of millions of dollars lobbying politicians to favor their business, often at the expense of public health and the environment. Local businesses welcome all the truckers, traffic and drilling personnel because it means increased commerce. But at what cost?

Communities are fighting back. Do your homework and get to know about fracking. The articles below in Recommended Reading are a good start, and rent the HBO movie documentary Gasland. You will get a good background on how communities across the US are being effected. If you think your community is being impacted by fracking, the Gasland producers have setup a good website to learn more and with tips on how to Take Action, including links to elected officials, info on local organizations, and email action alerts. Remember – oil companies are funneling big money into politicians coffers to influence public policy. It will take your steady, informed, organized community voice to counter big oil special interests.

anti-fracking protest
April 11 anti-fracking protest in Albany, NY, for safe drinking water

For ideas on how to hold your elected officials accountable, read Nicholas Kristof’s really fine article on The Power of Mockery. It highlights one of the most effective ways for grass-roots movements to speak truth to power. He also features Tina Rosenberg’s new book Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World. Kristoff offers examples of the techniques in action, including: how kids took on Big Tobacco and reduced teen smoking in Florida; the Egyptian revolution; Serbia, etc.

I just added this excellent video by Josh Fox, calling out NY Governor Cuomo on fracking.  It is an excellent review of secret memos leaked from the gas industry, detailing how fracking system failures pollute our water resources.  Rolling Stone Magazine online has a good article calling the Governor out on fracking.

And finally, support politicians that are committed to a strong Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The Trend Is Our Friend

Fossil fuels are becoming more expensive and extraction more toxic. The easy stuff has already been extracted over the decades. What remains poses greater and greater risk to public health and the environment. Fossil fuels are our past. Renewable energy is our future. Renewables are becoming cheaper and cheaper and are much cleaner to produce. Let’s not compromise our future trying to ring every last drop of oil and gas out of the ground. Support politicians that understand the pressing need to rapidly transition to renewable energy and invest in research and development, education, and regulation.

I’ll leave you with this interactive diagram from the Gasland website. Click on the small circles to learn more about fracking. Click on the “To The City” arrow to scroll the image to the left to see how fracking contaminated water effects community water systems.

[kml_flashembed publishmethod=”static” fversion=”8.0.0″ movie=”” width=”590″ height=”286″ targetclass=”flashmovie”]

Recommended Reading

Shale Gas Exploration: The Coming Storm by Jay Kimball

Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers by Ian Urbina

Chemicals Were Injected Into Wells, Report Says by Ian Urbina

Shale Gas Isn’t Cleaner Than Coal, Cornell Researchers Say by Mike Soraghan

Studies Say Natural Gas Has Its Own Environmental Problems by Tom Zeller Jr.

Gas Industry Spent Record Amount Of Money Lobbying To End New York Fracking Moratorium

Arkansas Is Shaking: 50+ Earthquakes In Past Week; 700+ In Last Six Months at NPR

Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World by Tina Rosenberg

Natural Gas Watch a nonprofit reporting on the the oil/gas industries impact on public health and safety

0 thoughts on “Congress Releases Report on Toxic Chemicals Used In Fracking

  • It needs to be stressed, that the behavior of the industry in rather unreasonable. Surely, there are trade-offs for everything, and extraction of natural gas may be worth of SOME environmental and societal costs – but these costs have to be detailed, specified, and well known to be considered. One source of the problem, as I see it, has to do with the common-law legal system, and the importance of precedence in US law. The companies fight to avoid creating a precedence, because to admit even once that mining and extraction can have any bad impact would mean to accept a principle. They see it as a life-and-death issue, rather than a problem that needs to be dealt with in a calm and reasonable manner.

  • DeSmogBlog posted a document that appears to be leaked from an oil/gas company trying to get homeowners to lease their land for natural gas exploration. See:

    TreeHugger notes:
    “It appears that increased community awareness is making it harder for oil and gas companies to convince people to let them drill on their land — so the industry is pushing ahead and trying to secure as many rights as quickly as possible.Through a tipster, TreeHugger has obtained a document that appears to be an oil company’s ‘talking points’ guide for its salesman to use in order to convince landowners that they should let said corporation drill on their land. Entitled ‘Talking Points for Selling and Gas Lease Rights’, the document implores its ‘Field Agents’ to mislead people about the risks of drilling, to omit important facts, and even, on occasion, to outright lie.

    Again, it’s important to note that TreeHugger has not confirmed the authenticity of the document, nor have we identified which oil company it belongs to. Nonetheless, if real (as it certainly appears to be), it offers yet another window into the unscrupulous practices of an industry with a long legacy of bending the truth.

    The document focuses on sales technique, instructing the salesman to tailor his pitch to the political sensibilities of the person in question, which is nothing notable.”

  • in the Gasland movie the guy lights his water…what caused the gas in the water???? I would bet my right arm that it was not due to fraccing…anyone cae to prove me wrong???? What a scam on America!!!!!!

  • Hi Geobill,

    No need to give up your right arm. This is less about your arm, and more about risks to public health and water systems. When you have one flaming tap water here and there, you can think that it might be a fluke, but when you have a growing track record of water, air, and environmental contamination in proximity to fracking drill sites, it is worth paying attention to and looking in to.

    Getting rid of the Haliburton loop hole and increasing transparency on what chemicals are being used to frack is a good start. Our government should be first in the business of protecting the citizens and our common wealth. Government needs to err on the side of “First,do no harm.”

    If you look closely at the gold rush like fever pitch that oil/gas companies are bring to drilling in populace areas, it is appropriate for government and the citizens to demand proven safe extraction practices that won’t compromise public health.

    For those readers that want to make sure the public health is not at risk for corporate profit, check out the video above and Gasland, and see what you think. Start reading the reports that are coming out, check in with watchdog groups in your state, and do your homework. It is an investment in your good health.

  • A major fracking fluid spill in PA today. Local news sources are reporting that thousands of gallons of fracking fluid have spewed over and beyond the well pad.

    Officials said thousands of gallons of fluid leaked over farm land and into a creek from a natural gas well in Bradford County.

    Now there is a massive operation underway to contain the spill of drilling fluids.

    The rupture near Canton happened late Tuesday night, contaminating nearby land and creeks.


  • Here’s a story today related to fracking: “Fracking Well Shutdown Extended As Researchers Study Link To Earthquakes In Arkansas”

    Here are highlights from the story:

    LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Two natural gas exploration companies have agreed to extend the shutdowns of two injection wells in Arkansas as researchers study whether the operations are linked to more than 1,000 unexplained earthquakes in the region, a state commission said Wednesday.”

    Scott Ausbrooks, a geo-hazards supervisor for the Arkansas Geological Survey, said the area’s seismic activity has dramatically declined since the injection well closures.

    “We’re still having earthquakes, but that’s not unexpected,” he said. “We’ve definitely seen a marked decrease in the number of earthquakes since the shutdown, especially the larger ones.”

    He said that in the month before the shutdown, there were more than 80 seismic events with a magnitude 2.5 or greater, compared with 20 in the month after.

  • A comment left at an article on fracking by Bryan Walsh at Time Magazine is pertinent:

    “Fracking has been done for decades. I grew up in the wilds of Alberta, Canada through the sixties and seventies. Throughout the seventies and still to this day fracking was and still is common procedure there. The sad thing is that 90% of all of Alberta’s once pristine groundwater is now contaminated from the overwhelming extent of this procedure and the seismic exploration done over the decades. We used to have some of the cleanest and most pure ground water in Canada and now this ground water at all levels is contaminated due to the fractured state of the sedimentary base above and below all the provinces underground aquifers. We have the facts, decades of documentation and evaluation, When will the oil industries so called scientist come out of their denial and ignorance to the fact that what is standard procedure currently in place is reducing every aspect of our environment and planet into a polluted and desolate wasteland.”

    The article is here:—and-some-solutions/

  • given: 1) the exemptions the sector has from prosecution under the EPA, 2) the volumes of chemicals used, 3) the fact that the industry in Europe does not proposed to use them, 4) their function is not well documented (should be an identified function for each chemical if they are there) etc…

    This looks more like a waste duping operation under the cover of gas exploitation than a ustified industrial process.

    Any thoughts? Happy to discuss

  • Anonymous says:

    I live in northeast PA where they are drilling.   Although I got legal advice and carefully negotiated with the drilling company, I knew I was signing a deal with the devil.  I did it because I’m poor and I really needed the money.  Unfortunately most folks in rural areas are not rich and can not afford to turn down the offers. 

    I’ve also attended gatherings held by the drilling company, where they tried to explain the water analysis reports, and it seemed that most people here couldn’t understand the informational presentation.    So that’s a problem.

    Meanwhile, the well that exploded is about 40 minutes from where I live, and the bunch of homes with contaminated wells are 30 minutes in the other direction.   I’m not optimistic.  As for the troll who can’t believe you can light water on fire: when the water is contaminated with methane gas, you can.  Nobody in this area was ever able to do that before fracking started.

  • This is BS.  The oil companies, both large and small, have been drilling wells and using fracking techniques in the West Texas and Eastern New Mexico “Permian Basin” for decades and extensively for the past 5-10 years.  There has never been evidence of 1 single water well or water source that has been contaminated from fracking fluids.  This is fact.  Fracking is done 5000 feet (1 mile) below the surface, far away from water tables, which are usually only 100 -400 feet below ground.  Fracking cracks open the rock, maybe, for a couple of hundred feet…not the thousands of feet it would take to reach water tables as shown in the above bogus illustration.  Scare tactics at their worse!  Distorted information and propaganda at its best. 
    These same people probably believe that a missle hit the Pentagon and President Bush flew the planes into the WTC bldgs. by remote control! 

  • i suppose added to what the general public in the millions in the west already  flushes down the sink and loo, detergents etc,  this adds up to mighty splooge,

    guess before we condemn the fracking guys we need to put our own house in order.

  • No, we don’t need to do things like this serially. We can work to make sure that fracking and any other sources of pollution and toxic emissions are minimized. We can do this all at the same time. For example, dentist offices used to routinely flush the mercury from old fillings down the drain, and in coastal areas, it would end up in the sea, and hence, into the food chain. Now, mercury is disposed of safely, so our water systems have much lower levels of mercury.

    We can be smart about understanding what the sources of pollution are, and innovating solutions and regulations, as appropriate.

    Jay Kimball
    8020 Vision 

  • No, we don’t need to do things like this serially. We can work to make sure that fracking and any other sources of pollution and toxic emissions are minimized. We can do this all at the same time. For example, dentist offices used to routinely flush the mercury from old fillings down the drain, and in coastal areas, it would end up in the sea, and hence, into the food chain. Now, mercury is disposed of safely, so our water systems have much lower levels of mercury.

    We can be smart about understanding what the sources of pollution are, and innovating solutions and regulations, as appropriate.

    Jay Kimball
    8020 Vision 

  • No. The oil/gas companies have a poor track record. Anytime we drill into the earth, there are numerous points were there can be failures of technology or process. See the information and animations above for examples of how these failures happen.

    I would also recommend renting Gasland for some examples of how individuals, property owners, and communities are being affected by these failures.

    One of the most recent failures occurred in Pennsylvania, in April 2011. A gas well operated by Chesapeake Energy erupted, sending thousands of gallons of chemical-laced and highly saline water spilling from the drill site, heading over containment berms, racing toward a tributary of a popular trout-fishing stream and forcing seven families nearby to temporarily evacuate their homes. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) believes the cause of the accident—which occurred almost exactly a year after the BP rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico— was apparently a double dose of bad luck: mechanical failure coupled with bad weather. 

    The leak happened at the Atgas 2H well in rural Leroy Township, about 175 miles northwest of Philadelphia. The failure occurred when Chesapeake was in the middle of a “frack job.” They were pumping up to a million gallons of water treated with biocides, lubricants, surfactants and stabilizers a mile or more into the ground at pressures exceeding 9000 psi. Officials investigating the leak believe they have pinpointed the initial cause of the accident: A steel coupling located beneath the well’s blowout protector, but above ground, appears to have failed, allowing thousands (and perhaps tens of thousands) of gallons of contaminated water to gush out of the well. (The blowout protector is the same technology as device that failed in the case of the BP oil spill. It didn’t fail here, but if it had, both natural gas and water would have spewed forth from the well. However above-ground wells are much easier to shut down than those deep underwater.) 

    This is just one example of how drilling can fail. The good news is that people are paying attention, and asking for better regulation of the industry. And the industry sees they have a problem and are working to develop clean fracking fluids and processes. We should go slow until this can get worked out

    Jay Kimball
    8020 Vision

  • If you live in the Northeast US, this one’s for you. From the good folks at The Gasland Project:

    This is an urgent call to the fans of GASLAND and to the fracking
    movement across the nation, please act now to Save the Delaware River.
    On October 21st, the Delaware River Basin commission will vote on a plan
    to allow 20,000 gas wells in the Delaware River basin. We need calls
    to come from all over the nation and we need people from all over the
    region to come out in protest on October 21st.

    The Delaware River Basin commission is comprised of five voting members,
    Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, Governor Christie of New Jersey,
    Governor Corbett of Pennsylvania, Governor Markell from Delaware and the
    Obama Administration represented by the Army Corps of Engineers. For
    the Delaware River to be opened up to drilling three out of five have to
    vote yes on the draft regulations plan. We need them all to reject the
    proposal and reject gas drilling and fracking.

    There has never been a more urgent moment in the North east in the
    battle against fracking. The Delaware is the primary drinking water
    source for 15.6 million people and it is a national treasure.

    Four actions you can take:

    1) Call the the Governors from the member states and President Obama
    TODAY and tell them, “Hello, I am calling you to express my serious
    concerns about hydrofracking. Please Don’t Drill the Delaware!”

    Governor Christie’s office – 609-292-6000
    Governor Cuomo’s office – 518-474-8390
    Gov Corbett’s office – 717-787-2500
    Gov Markell’s Wilmington Office – 302-577-3210
    And the white house comment line is 202-456-1111

    2) Come to the DRBC meeting!

    When: October 21, 8 am

    Where: Patriots Theater at the War Memorial, 1 Memorial Drive Trenton,

    There are over 20 buses traveling in from all over the region. 

    3) Delaware Riverkeeper will be hosting a Peaceful Non-Violent Direct
    Action Training on October 20th. For more information, sign up HERE:

    4) If you work with an organization fighting to keep our water safe from
    hydraulic fracturing, please send this alert to those in your
    membership, and post it on facebook.

    We will continue to send updates in the coming weeks.

    For more information go to or visit

    With your help, we can stop the poisoning of our historic rivers and
    move to renewable and sustainable energy solutions.

    Thanks for all you do! Together we can turn the tide.

    Josh and the Gasland Team

    please go to or for more details

  • The fact that your drilling diagram above is so grossly out of proportion makes you an easy target for substantiated criticism.  The shale layer is many times farther from the water table than your diagram misleadingly suggests.  Also, a hot point saying “research is underway…” is meaningless.

    I agree that hydraulic fracturing needs more research but your blatant attempt at misinformation will only get you rejected from a real conversation.

  • i see the enviromental pricks are running theirs mouths again as i would not believe them as they are bed with the chimp dick-tater anything thing to stop americans from going to work to support their familys also to save this great country

  • Just resumed fracking operations in my county (Lacashire UK) after an equiry into earthquakes locally,caused by fracking.I’m really worried after reading about some of the contamination and health risks to the local poulation and ecology.

  • Some good news on fracking regs from the EPA:!OpenDocument

    Step by step, the corporate welfare for the fossil fuel industry needs to stop.  The fossil fuel industry has been privatizing profit, but passing the costs on to society.  That’s not a free market.  It needs to stop.  If the fossil fuel industry can’t compete with an honest accounting of the income and cost, then it is time to move on and let newer cleaner technologies evolve.

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