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Groups question 'fracking' safety

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GRAND FORKS -- The clamor appears to be growing for greater regulation of "fracking," the mineral extraction process that has helped to fuel North Dakota's oil boom.

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On the heels of a critical "60 Minutes" report Sunday, oil and gas giant Halliburton has begun to disclose some of the chemicals it uses in fracking while continuing to insist that the process is safe.

But environmentalists and the federal Environmental Protection Agency want more information and tighter regulation, which has the industry -- and North Dakota officials charged with monitoring it -- concerned.

"Fracking" is the energy industry slang term for hydraulic fracturing, the process of creating fractures in shale rock formations through the high-pressure injection of fluids deep underground, allowing more oil and gas to flow out of the formation.

Engineers have used fracking to increase well production for more than 60 years, but it has become especially effective recently in combination with horizontal drilling and other technological developments.

The process has made drilling more profitable in many areas, including the Bakken field in western North Dakota, where the monthly setting of oil and gas production records has become routine.

Industry officials insist the process is environmentally sound and provides a windfall to land and mineral rights owners who otherwise wouldn't see their properties fully developed. Some environmentalists, however, fault oil and gas companies for not fully disclosing chemicals used in fracking, and they raise questions about its potential impact on water supplies.

The Western Resource Council, an association of environmental organizations based in Billings, Mont., has raised questions about fracking for several years and has sparred with the EPA over what the council terms inadequate oversight. The association's membership includes the Dakota Resource Council in Dickinson.

"Hydraulic fracturing companies have shielded substantial information about their products from disclosure, each claiming that their special proprietary mix is the most effective and vital to the success of their business, and that disclosure would be a taking of their private property," the council states on its website.

"Out of the 435 chemical products known to be used in natural gas fracturing, all the ingredients have been disclosed for only 5 percent, and for 9 percent, no information about any of the chemicals in the products (is) available. This lack of information and secrecy prevents landowners and, in some case, government agencies from conducting proper water quality tests."

The recent negative attention paid to fracking included a Nov. 11 episode of the CBS crime drama "CSI" in which hydraulic fracturing played what the industry termed a "misleading" role.

And in the "60 Minutes" report Sunday, CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl noted that Halliburton was the only company that recently refused a request from the EPA to reveal chemicals it uses in hydraulic fracturing.

The report also explained what has been called the Halliburton loophole, a provision of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act that exempts fracking technology from regulation under federal safe drinking water laws.

"It's a little bit frightening that the national media and Hollywood are trying to make an issue out of something we've been doing since the 1940s," said Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, an association representing nearly 250 companies engaged in the oil and gas industry.

"In North Dakota, hydraulic fracturing goes on at a depth of two miles beneath the surface, and they have yet to find any clear evidence of an issue" concerning impact on ground water, he said.

Ness said the "rhetoric" concerning fracking "is something of an attack on fossil fuels." And while so far it has primarily "created a fear" in the eastern United States, where natural gas production occurs closer to the surface, "North Dakota would be subject to any (restrictive) outcome of the discussion, and so we certainly are going to engage it.

"The bottom line is there is no Bakken without hydraulic fracturing."

'A huge issue' for North Dakota

North Dakota officials and energy interests developing the Bakken expressed relief in late July when legislation proposed to Congress in response to the Gulf oil spill did not contain new restrictions on hydraulic fracturing.

"It's a huge issue for North Dakota and it's a huge issue for building a greater oil production capacity for the United States," Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., said at the time. With major new restrictions or a moratorium on fracking, he said, "oil development in the Bakken and Three Forks would be shut off like a light switch."

People overseeing the industry on the state's behalf appear to share that concern.

On the state Mineral and Gas Division's website, a standing post urges visitors to defend fracking as vital to the state's energy industry: "Please TAKE ACTION NOW to tell the EPA you support increased oil and natural gas production -- and the use of hydraulic fracturing: a time-tested, safe process that helps us access more of our own reserves!"

The division's site also provides a link to an energy industry website, energycitizens.org, which argues that hydraulic fracturing has been used more than 1.1 million times since 1947 "and has never been credibly proven to impact groundwater."

The technology "is highly and effectively regulated at both federal and state levels, and the Ground Water Protection Council (an association of state ground water regulators) has concluded that state regulations are sufficient to ensure the integrity of our water supply," it states. State regulators "have found no documented cases of contaminated drinking water linked to hydraulic fracturing."

Ness said that especially holds true for North Dakota.

"The states have regulated this process for decades," he said. "The EPA has never proven to be as effective at regulating as the states, and we have one of the top regulatory agencies in the nation."

From benign to hazardous

Halliburton Co., which had resisted calls for disclosure of chemicals used in its hydraulic fracturing fluid, announced this week that it will provide some detailed information on its website.

"Halliburton pioneered fracturing technology more than 60 years ago, but the safe and efficient use of this technology has never been more important or in greater demand than it is right now," David Adams, vice president of Halliburton's production enhancement product service line, said in a statement posted on the company site.

Greenwire, an internet site which bills itself as "the leading information source for comprehensive, objective, daily coverage of environmental and energy policy, politics and markets," reported that Houston-based Halliburton's disclosure this week "shows that many of the chemicals used in fracturing are as benign as food additives. 'Guar gum,' for example, is a thickener used in ice cream and fruit jelly.

"But it also lists more dangerous ingredients, such as the petroleum distillate called naptha, which is used in cleaners, car wax and paint thinner," Greenwire reported in a story that was also circulated by the New York Times. "There are also several chemicals, sometimes considered hazardous, used in household cleansers and others used in agriculture as microbiocide agents."

A greater role for fed regulators?

According to FuelFix.com, which provides news and analysis on the energy industry, the federal government does appear poised to assume a greater role in regulating the fracking process.

"Some on Capitol Hill and in the Obama administration want to ... give the Interior Department and Environmental Protection Agency more say over the hydraulically fractured wells," FuelFix.com reported this week. The EPA "is about to launch a congressionally mandated study of the process and just subpoenaed Halliburton for more information on the chemical components of its hydraulic fracturing fluids after the energy giant refused to provide the information voluntarily."

The House Energy and Commerce Committee had asked Halliburton and seven other energy companies "to shed more light on the ingredients in their chemical cocktails."

Also, the Interior Department -- concerned primarily with how hydraulic fracturing technology is used to draw natural gas from public lands -- plans a forum on the issue in Washington Nov. 30 involving state and federal government officials, environmentalists and representatives of the industry.

President Barack Obama earlier this month said he remains committed to development of the nation's natural gas resources, and the Interior Department, in announcing the Nov. 30 forum, said it "shares that commitment." But Interior also "wants to ensure that natural gas is developed in a safe and environmentally sustainable manner so that the U.S. can fully realize the economic, security, and environmental benefits of this important energy resource."

Halliburton said its disclosures this week primarily concern its activities in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale natural gas field, but "the company is committed to continuing to provide hydraulic fracturing fluid disclosure information for every U.S. state in which Halliburton's fracture stimulation services are in use."

But environmentalists want more information and believe it should include well-by-well detail.

"The public wants to know what chemicals are being used near drinking water sources," a spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Defense Council told Greenwire. "While it's nice to see Halliburton acknowledging that desire, it's not meaningful or sufficient unless this information is fully disclosed on a site-by-site basis."

Halliburton, which this week also announced introduction of a new fracking fluid recipe using only additives found in the food industry, said on its website that the company will "insist on employing the best practices available when it comes to handling those fluids, transporting them, storing them, and using them to help our customers produce energy for the American people."

Haga is a reporter at The Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.

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