How is fracking ‘safe’ when we don’t know what’s in fracking fluids?


I’ve long predicted that California will be the place where the rubber hits the road for the fracking boom in America. The rewards in a resource-rich state are too great for Big Oil and Gas to ignore, but the risks — of wasting millions upon millions of gallons of water in a drought-stricken state, of causing earthquakes in a region criss-crossed by fault lines, of polluting the already smoggy air — are even more extreme.

And like New York, which recently moved — wisely — to ban fracking in the state, California has a powerful environmental lobby, and it also has a fairly progressive Democratic governor in Jerry Brown as well as one of more liberal state legislatures. It means that Big Oil and Gas can’t get away with everything in the Golden State like it has in more conservative locales like Oklahoma (or at least it did until the earthquakes grew too strong). But despite a more skeptical approach to unconventional drilling for oil and gas, California still hasn’t been able to crack the industry’s biggest trade secret: just what chemicals, exactly, are contained in fracking fluid:

A scientific assessment on the impacts of hydraulic fracturing in California found that, in large part, the chemicals used are not being identified or tracked, and it’s nearly impossible to tell how damaging the process is to California’s water supply.

The study, carried out by the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST), recommended state agencies ban the reuse of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — for any use that could impact human health, the environment, wildlife, and vegetation until further testing can be done.

“These are things that require diligence,” CCST’s Jane Long told ThinkProgress. “There are a lot of potential issues.”

During fracking, chemical-laced water is pumped at high pressure into shale rock formations that hold oil and gas deposits. Figuring out what to do with the water after it’s been used — and whether it is safe — has been an ongoing issue. According to the CCST assessment, the toxicity of half of the chemicals used in California fracking is not publicly available. More than half the chemicals have not been evaluated for basic tests “that are needed for understanding hazards and risks associated with chemicals.”

This is really quite stunning, when you think about it. This is a state that is literally parched — in the midst of the worst drought in decades, possibly ever. And yet this industry may be tainting billions of gallons of this most precious resource of water. And it’s coming at a time when desperate California officials are weighing whether to allow the re-use of fracking wastewater to irrigate cropland — the food that you and I eat every day. Past tests of such wastewater used in agriculture have shown the presence of acetone and methylene chloride, chemicals that are toxic to humans. Now, the industry works hard, and successfully, to keep as many of the main ingredients top secret. What, exactly, are they trying to hide.

Other findings in the report, as outlined in the Los Angeles Times, are equally alarming:

— Strong acids, solvents and biocides in oil field water present a “significant hazard to aquatic species and other wildlife, particularly when released into surface water.” All of the chemicals are “undesirable” in drinking water.

— Injection wells that the state is allowing to dispose of oil field wastewater into federally protected aquifers may have received water containing fracking fluids.

— Oil operations in federal waters offshore are discharging wastewater directly into the ocean, against EPA regulations.

— More than half the produced water from fracked wells is disposed of in unlined pits. “We do not know how long hydraulic fracture chemicals persist in produced water or at what concentrations or how these change in time, which means that hazardous levels of contaminants … cannot be ruled out.”

This is why energy experts who once hailed natural gas as a step forward on reducing greenhouse gases are having second thoughts on the process. Everybody should have second thoughts on the process. Its economic benefits have been overstated, and its environmental drawbacks are becoming too numerous to count. Let’s hope that California is where fracking went to die.

Read more about the California state probe into fracking fluids here:

Here’s additional coverage from the Los Angeles Times:

I go in-depth on the broader risks of fracking in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America:

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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