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White House staffer “unclear” whether info on hydraulic fracturing is available to the public; EID clears up the confusion

It might very well be the most under-reported aspect of the debate surrounding hydraulic fracturing today: namely, the willingness of Carol Browner in the mid-1990s — then, EPA administrator; now, top energy advisor to President Obama — to directly engage opponents of fracturing technology with the facts on its use, the science on its safety, and the history supporting the proposition that states, and not EPA, are best equipped to regulate the process effectively.

Nearly fifteen years later, the technology defended by Ms. Browner in a series of letters back then is being called upon today to lead a veritable revolution – one with the promise to recast the energy and environmental future of this country, while retooling its engine of economic growth in a way that creates jobs, revenue and long-term opportunity for the people who need it most.

One wonders whether Ms. Browner’s current staff has read any of those letters of yore. Earlier this week,Joseph Aldy, a top Browner deputy, told a Washington audience that he’s “sort of” concerned that the solutions used in the fracturing process might contaminate drinking water — notwithstanding the existence of a 60-year track-record, and the testimony of his current boss, that suggest precisely the opposite conclusion.

To Dr. Aldy, it remains “unclear” whether a link exists between the use of hydraulic fracturing and the corruption of groundwater. Fortunately, what’s unclear to him is abundantly clear to several others who have studied this question for decades: EPA, for starters; the Ground Water Protection Council, which counts state ground water regulatory agencies among its membership; and again, Ms. Browner herself, who submitted the following when asked to assess whether a relationship existed between the fracturing of coalbed methane seams (which reside thousands of feet closer to the water table than shale formations) and the contamination of aquifers:

“There is no evidence that the hydraulic fracturing at issue has resulted in any contamination or endangerment of underground sources of drinking water (USDW). … Moreover, given the horizontal and vertical distance between the drinking water well and the closest methane gas production wells, the possibility of contamination or endangerment of USDWs in the area is extremely remote.”

But what do we actually know about the process today? And more important: How do we know that we actually know it? Epistemic questions aside, Dr. Aldy has some serious practical ones. To wit: “I don’t think we have the information to assess” whether hydraulic fracturing technology is safe, Aldy told a reporter this week — because information detailing what’s involved in the fracturing process is, to his knowledge, not part of the public domain.

Except that it is. In fact, according to the Ground Water Protection Council, every state in which shale gas exploration actively takes place requires operators and service companies to provide a list of frac-related materials to state agencies; on the federal level, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires producers to keep similarly exhaustive documents on-site as well – information known as a Materials Safety Data Sheets (MSDS). Indeed, these sheets not only list the specific compounds found in a specific treatment in use at a specific well site, but they also contain detailed technical information that can be used by first-responders and medical personnel in case of an emergency.

Here’s what one of those sheets look like. Here’s just one of the places you can go to search for them. And if you don’t have time for that, here’s where you can go to get lists derived from those sheets. Here’sanother place (page 62). And another. But wait: You thought that information was secret, right? Notaccording to New York, which considers MSDSs to be “public information ineligible for exception from disclosure as trade secrets or confidential business information.” And certainly not according to Pennsylvania, which posts this information online as well. In fact, here’s the statement sent out by the Marcellus Shale Coalition just hours after the Aldy comments hit the ‘net:

“[W]e recognize the need to educate and engage stakeholders, policymakers, regulators, and concerned citizens, which is why we worked with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to fully disclose fluids used in Marcellus Shale. In fact, DEP lists these fluids publicly on its webpage. And these fluids are mandated by the federal government to be at all well locations, too.”

Here’s the thing about water safety: It’s a simple function of well integrity. And here’s the thing about well integrity: It’s the object of aggressive (and long-standing) regulation and oversight by the states. Believe it or not, when it comes to safeguarding the public’s supplies of drinking water, it really doesn’t matter what goes into the well, or what comes out. It doesn’t matter whether you’re producing natural gas, or oil, or water, or even geothermal. And here’s the kicker: It doesn’t even matter whether you’re using hydraulic fracturing technology to access it.

What truly matters here is the pathway – specifically, the ability to prevent that which is found inside the wellbore from “communicating” with phenomena that exist naturally outside of it. So how do producers ensure that never the two shall meet? Multiple layers of steel casing, for starters – installed in a way that ensures every inch of the wellbore is suspended in isolation from that which surrounds it. And once the pipe is put into place, it’s time to cement it – sealing-off any remaining pathways, however small, that might otherwise provide an unacceptable conduit for water. Did we mention yet that the areas we fracture reside thousands (sometimes tens of thousands) of feet below the areas the support drinking water? Or that the two strata are separated by millions of tons of impermeable rock?

Of course, these facts will all eventually find their way to the surface – in a manner not dissimilar to the enormous amounts of clean-burning natural gas that have been made possible through the common (yet innovative) use of hydraulic fracturing. One just hopes that, unlike the natural gas, these facts don’t remained trapped underground for the next three million years.

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