Looks like the US Congress is going to crack down on the natural gas industry over the nasty process of hydraulic fracturing.
Rep. Henry Waxman, chair of the powerful Congressional Committee on Energy and Commerce, along with subcommittee chair, Rep. Ed Markey have fired off letters [PDF] to 10 of the major players in the natural gas industry demanding they come clean on the potential human health and environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing.
Among their requests, Waxman and Markey are asking the companies to submit:
"a list of all oil and gas wells for which your company performed or hired another company to perform hydraulic fracturing in 2008 and 2009 and for which that hydraulic fracturing occurred in, near, or above an underground source of drinking water as defined by the Safe Drinking Water Act."
"All documents relating to any allegations of harm to human health or the environment caused by hydraulic fracturing at your wells, including from improper on-site storage or spills of fluids recovered from your wells; improper on- or off-site disposal or discharge of recovered fluids; and contamination of drinking water."
The companies that have received the letter are: Encana Corporation, Occidental Petroleum Corporation, Chesapeake Energy Corporation, BP America, Southwestern Energy, ConocoPhillips, Devon Energy Corporation, EOG Resources, Inc., EQT Corporation and ExxonMobil Corporation.
Hydraulic fracturing (or "fracking") is widely used in the natural gas sector to extract hard-to-get gas deposits.
In a nutshell, fracking involves pumping upwards of a million gallons of chemical-laden sand and water down into a hole under a huge amount of pressure. The pressure frees up the gas that can then be siphoned to the surface.
The problem is that there has been an increase in reported cases of contaminated fresh water wells in areas where fracking is occurring. In some cases, residents living close to fracking operations have been able to light their tap water on fire.
The process makes unrecoverable gas recoverable, so areas that would have probably never seen drilling are now fair game. Like the Roan Plateau in the Colorado Rockies where a company called Bill Barrett Corporation plans to drill up to 3,000 wells to get at the gas that lies deep below the surface.
Under the Bush Junior administration an exemption was passed in the Safe Drinking Water Act, that allows natural gas companies to avoid having to disclose the toxic chemicals that are contained in the fracking fluid that is pumped into the earth by the thousands of gallons.
We do know that there are some very nasty chemicals in fracking fluid, like formamide, a "reproductive toxicant" that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention says targets organs like the "eyes, skin, respiratory system, central nervous system, [and] reproductive system," and isopropanol which is a main ingredient in household glass cleaners.
Problem is, we don't know the amounts or the exact proportions. Hopefully the Waxman and Markey letters will start to get to the bottom of this toxic mess.