New EPA Report Refutes Activists’ Claims on Fracking Fluid

New research from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is making it difficult for anti-fracking activists to continue making their oft-repeated claims about the composition of hydraulic fracturing fluid.

The new report from the EPA provides a detailed look at the makeup of fluid composition and water volumes used in the hydraulic fracturing process. To conduct its research, the agency looked at more than 38,000 disclosures from FracFocus 1.0 filed between January 1, 2011 and February 28, 2013. The data covered records from 19,700 oil wells and 18,300 gas wells from approximately 428 operators in 406 counties across 20 states.

Activists’ Claims of More than 700 Chemicals Fall Apart

Notably, while the EPA found nearly 700 unique ingredients reported across the country for additives, base fluids, and proppants, the “median number of additive ingredients per disclosure for the entire dataset was 14.” In other words, each frack job uses approximately 14 chemicals, not 700.  Further, the EPA also found

“Among the entire data set, the sum of the maximum hydraulic fracturing fluid concentration for all additive ingredients reported in a disclosure was less than 1% by mass in approximately 80% of disclosures, and the median maximum hydraulic fracturing fluid concentration was 0.43% by mass.”

The EPA’s findings directly contradict much of the misinformation that has been perpetrated, such as a report led by University of Missouri researcher Dr. Susan Nagel, which claimed:

“More than 700 chemicals are used in the fracking process, and many of them disturb hormone function.”

Not to be outdone, the Sierra Club has also promoted this talking point in its efforts to turn public opinion away from shale development. In a video dubbed “Fracking 101,” the Sierra Club claims:

“This toxic cocktail [of fracturing fluid] requires millions of gallons of freshwater mixed with some of over 600 chemicals including: known carcinogens lead, formaldehyde and even more that the fossil fuel industry won’t disclose.”

As EID has previously pointed out, FracFocus.org does not contain a single disclosure that has nearly that many additives listed. These claims may grab headlines and serve the goal of shocking the public, but it is plain to see in the EPA’s report that the reality is a far different picture.

What Is In Fracking Fluid?

The EPA also highlighted the most commonly used additives in the hydraulic fracturing process: methanol, hydrochloric acid, and hydrotreated light petroleum distillates.  While anti-fracking activists often try to make scary claims about these additives, the reality is that they make up many products that we use every day.

  • Methanol, found by the EPA in 71 percent of disclosures, is an important additive that according to FracFocus, protects against freezing and corrosion in the wellbore. Because of these properties, methanol is used in a number of industries and shows up in household products ranging from windshield wiper fluid to plastics, paints and adhesives.
  • Hydrotreated light petroleum distillates are reported by the EPA to be contained in 65 percent of disclosures are added to “slick” the water, minimizing friction. These products can be found in makeup removers, laxatives and even some candy.
  • Hydrochloric acid, according to EPA was found in 65 percent of disclosures and is used to help dissolve minerals and initiate fissures in the rock. This product can also commonly be found in swimming pool cleaners.

While it has been reported that the distillate being used was kerosene, this was not considered a diesel fuel until EPA’s final guidance in February 2014 and, as we’ve noted before, the use of this additive has been phased out.

Again, many of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing are available in products found at grocery and hardware stores and are no different than those under your kitchen sink (or, in the case of hydrochloric acid, in the local swimming pool).  As researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder found recently, “The ‘surfactant’ chemicals found in samples of fracking fluid collected in five states were no more toxic than substances commonly found in homes.”  Of course, it’s also worth remembering that the chemicals that are used are contained within the wellbore and there are no instances of them damaging the environment.

Confidential Business Information

In reviewing the data, the EPA found that 70 percent of FracFocus 1.0 disclosures had at least one confidential business information (CBI) ingredient. However, the report acknowledges that

“although these ingredients are reported as proprietary, information on the general chemical class is frequently provided.” (emphasis added)

There are, however, unique combinations and additives that developers have invested many years and many millions of dollars into developing. Without protections for this confidential business information, the companies that developed the additives would lose business and jobs as their competitors could simply copy their products for free.

Some environmental activists, who have called for revealing confidential business information, should probably take a minute to understand exactly what it is they are attacking.

Safeguarding intellectual property is not specific or unique to the oil and gas industry. Many products an average household uses everyday contain man-made chemicals that the company does not disclose to users but is available to doctors and emergency response personnel if needed.

In fact, even the recently re-introduced Frac Act, a proposal that seeks to bring the regulation of hydraulic fracturing under federal purview that is backed by anti-fracking groups like Food & Water Watch, acknowledges the rights of developers to protect their intellectual property. From the 2015 Frac Act:

“(D) NO PUBLIC DISCLOSURE REQUIRED.—Nothing in subparagraph (A), (B), or (C) authorizes a State or the Administrator to publicly disclose any proprietary chemical formula.”

The Denver Post Editorial Board has also come out in favor of protecting the intellectual property rights of oil and gas operators:

“There is nothing sinister or unusual about secrecy for intellectual property. Federal law provides similar protections for various industries, while allowing exceptions for health professionals who need the information to do their job.”

Conclusion

President Obama’s own former energy and climate adviser, Heather Zichal, said this about FracFocus: “As an administration, we believe that FracFocus is an important tool that provides transparency to the American people.”

That transparency has only been strengthened.  The EPA analyzed only FracFocus 1.0 and the program has undergone at least two overhauls since then that expand user friendliness and provide more information. This continued improvement is making information about how the oil and gas industry operates even more easily accessible to the public.  In fact, the Bureau of Land Management will be using the FracFocus database for the disclosure of chemicals under its new regulations on hydraulic fracturing on federal lands.

EPA’s report refutes anti-fracking activists’ oft-repeated claims about hydraulic fracturing fluid.  It also ultimately shows is that FracFocus is a valuable, easily accessible tool that provides the most comprehensive accounting of hydraulic fracturing fluid in the United States.

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