You Missed a Spot: A Timeline of Hydraulic Fracturing

Last week, ProPublica posted a big fancy chart about hydraulic fracturing on its website that purports to show that “government involvement with the drilling technique goes back decades.” (By “drilling technique” we assume they’re referring to hydraulic fracturing, even though, as a point of fact, hydraulic fracturing is not a drilling technique.) It’s a less-than-veiled attempt to provide cover for the claim that it was the federal government, not private industry, that facilitated the growth of shale development. But as we already know, that claim lacks merit. As Professor Michael Giberson of Texas Tech University has observed, the federal government’s role was “merely convenient to technological advancement and not necessary.” (emphasis added)

And, as it turns out, the chart is defined more by what it omits than what it includes. So, we decided to make our own timeline to provide everyone with a little more context (and facts) about the history of hydraulic fracturing, not to mention its incredible safety record.

1947: First well receives hydraulic fracturing treatment to stimulate natural gas development (Grant County, Kan.).

1950s: Hydraulic fracturing is used for the first time in Canada (Cardium oil field in central Alberta).

November 1974: Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) is signed into law. Establishes new standards and regulations to protect underground sources of drinking water (USDW). Despite having been utilized commercially for a quarter century, hydraulic fracturing was never considered for regulation under SDWA.

June 1986: SDWA is amended to regulate more than 100 specific contaminants. Hydraulic fracturing, now commercially utilized for nearly four decades, is never considered for regulation.

1980s/early 1990s: George Mitchell successfully combines horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing to “crack the code” of the Barnett Shale in north Texas.

1994/1995: The Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation (LEAF) petitions the EPA to withdraw approval of Alabama’s underground injection control (UIC) program, arguing that the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) required that the federal EPA regulate hydraulic fracturing. Then-EPA Administrator (and later President Obama’s climate czar) Carol Browner responds with a clear message: “EPA does not regulate – and does not believe it is legally required to regulate – the hydraulic fracturing of methane gas production wells under its UIC program [under the Safe Drinking Water Act].” In that same letter, Browner says there was “no evidence” of hydraulic fracturing contaminating ground water.

August 1996: SDWA is amended once again to emphasize sound science and standards. Hydraulic fracturing is not considered for regulation.

1997: LEAF appeals EPA’s position (in LEAF v. U.S. EPA) on Alabama’s UIC program, arguing once again that the Safe Drinking Water Act requires EPA to regulate hydraulic fracturing of coalbed methane.

1999: In response to the LEAF decision, the State Oil and Gas Board of Alabama promulgates new rules and regulations on hydraulic fracturing, which the EPA approves one year later. LEAF appeals the Board’s new regulations to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Court ultimately sides with the EPA and the State Oil and Gas Board of Alabama, agreeing that the state’s regulatory system is an “effective program to prevent endangerment of underground sources of drinking water.”

2000: EPA initiates its own study of hydraulic fracturing. At less than 0.5 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of production, natural gas from shale accounts for roughly one percent of America’s total natural gas production.

August 2002: EPA releases a draft of its study of hydraulic fracturing, which affirms that the technology does not pose a risk to drinking water.

June 2004: EPA completes its four-year study on hydraulic fracturing (which began under the previous administration), concluding that the technology poses only a “minimal” threat to water supplies and that there are “no confirmed cases” linking hydraulic fracturing to drinking water contamination.

July 2005: The U.S. Congress passes the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (signed in August by the President), which includes a provision codifying that Congress never intended for hydraulic fracturing to be regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act (as also evidenced by decades of precedence.) Also in 2005, Range Resources drills the first wells in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania (three of them, in fact).

September 2008: The Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) sends a letter to Mike W. Markham in Weld County, Colo., after Mr. Markham expressed concern that nearby natural gas production could have contaminated his drinking water. After extensive sampling and testing, COGCC finds “no indications of any oil & gas related impacts” to Mr. Markham’s well.

June 2009: U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.), and Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) introduce the FRAC Act in Congress, which would rewrite the intent of the Safe Drinking Water Act (and upend the effective, state-based regulatory regime currently in place) to put control of hydraulic fracturing squarely in the hands of the U.S. EPA. Senator Bob Casey (D-Pa.) introduces companion legislation in the Senate. Interestingly, Colorado’s Governor at the time, Bill Ritter (D), accused Rep. DeGette of trying to create a “new and potential intrusive regulatory program” with the FRAC Act. Ritter further noted that states, including Colorado, have already “responsibly addressed” hydraulic fracturing. State regulators from across the country, meanwhile, defend the safety record of hydraulic fracturing.

August 2009: Initial testing of local water supplies in Pavillion, Wyo., by the EPA reveals the presence of a “tentatively identified compound,” or TIC. Earthworks blasts out a press release saying EPA has linked hydraulic fracturing to water contamination, even though the EPA made no conclusion or statement about the origin of the TIC, nor did it make any declaration that public health was in danger. A staffer with EPA says the possible contamination could be traced to household items, mentioning cleaning solvents specifically.

February 2010: Steve Heare, director of EPA’s Drinking Water Protection Division, says: “I have no information that states aren’t doing a good job already” with respect to regulating hydraulic fracturing.

March 2010: Under direction from Congress, the EPA initiates yet another study of hydraulic fracturing. The focus of the study is specifically on potential water impacts (despite dozens of state regulators saying hydraulic fracturing does not contaminate water.)

June 2010: The state of Wyoming approves a rule to require disclosure of the additives used during hydraulic fracturing. Later that month is the HBO premiere of the film Gasland, which, among many other things, attempts to rewrite much of the history of hydraulic fracturing. The film includes footage of one Mike Markham from Weld County, Colo., lighting his tap water on fire, which the film links to nearby gas drilling, despite the 2008 letter from Colorado regulators clearly and scientifically denying such a link.

October 2010: The Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) releases a document debunking many of the inaccuracies in Gasland, including notably the “flaming faucet” scene.

December 2010: Arkansas adopts new rules to require disclosure of additives used during hydraulic fracturing.

February 2011: Pennsylvania updates its regulations to include disclosure requirements for hydraulic fracturing fluids.

April 2011: The Ground Water Protection Council (GWPC) and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC) officially launch, an online disclosure website for the additives used during hydraulic fracturing. To date, the industry has uploaded more than 11,000 wells to the searchable database. That same month, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) releases a report that finds natural gas from shale accounts for 23 percent of total natural gas production in the United States, increasing from 0.39 trillion cubic feet (tcf) in 2000 to 4.87 tcf in 2010. Democrats on the House Energy & Commerce Committee, despite using “no scientific data” to support their most frightening conclusions, release a report summarizing the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluids. The report says nothing about actual water quality, nor does it provide appropriate context relating to concentration levels.

May 2011: During a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson says, “I’m not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself has affected water.” Michigan regulators announce new regulations that include, among others, a provision to require disclosure of the additives used during hydraulic fracturing.

July 2011: The city of Fort Worth, Tex., releases results from a study looking at health impacts near natural gas exploration and production sites in the Barnett shale. The study “did not reveal any significant health threats.”

September 2011: Montana begins implementing its new disclosure rules for additives used during hydraulic fracturing.

October 2011: Louisiana’s rules for hydraulic fracturing fluid disclosure go into effect (see page 3064 of this document).

December 2011: EPA issues a draft report on water quality in Pavillion that, despite no independent scientific review, alleges that hydraulic fracturing was “likely” the cause of water contamination in the area. Numerous state officials and regulators criticize the report as inherently flawed. Meanwhile, Colorado implements new rules requiring disclosure for hydraulic fracturing fluids, and Texas regulators approve their own disclosure law. Both Colorado and Texas utilize the FracFocus website for implementation of their laws.

January 2012: In his State of the Union address, President Obama issues strong support for developing natural gas from shale, noting that his administration will “take every possible action to safely develop this energy” in order to create “more than 600,000 jobs” by the end of the decade. “The development of natural gas will create jobs and power trucks and factories that are cleaner and cheaper, proving that we don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy,” the President added.

February 2012: Two months after releasing its draft report on Pavillion, the EPA backtracks its initial (and inflammatory) claim that hydraulic fracturing “likely” caused water contamination. At a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, EPA Region 8 administrator Jim Martin says: “We make clear that the causal link [of water contamination] to hydraulic fracturing has not been demonstrated conclusively,” adding that EPA’s draft report “should not be assumed to apply to fracturing in other geologic settings.” President Obama, in his FY 2013 budget, requests additional funds for the EPA to expand its own mandate for its hydraulic fracturing study, a mandate that goes beyond what was authorized by Congress. Two days later, during a hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says of hydraulic fracturing (subs. req’d): “From my point of view, it can be done safely and it has been done safely.”

Of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t include all of the economic benefits that hydraulic fracturing — by helping to unlock enormous amounts of natural gas — is delivering to Americans from coast to coast. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of jobs, lower energy bills for consumers, and a rebirth of domestic manufacturing, not to mention less reliance on places like Russia and Saudi Arabia for our energy supplies.

Hydraulic fracturing certainly has a long history, and though it may be inconvenient for opponents to acknowledge, it’s a history that shows time and again how industry best practices and regulation by the states, not federal control, have facilitated robust economic growth as well as a clean and healthy environment.


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