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What happens to hydraulic fracturing fluids underground?

Amy Mall

Posted December 28, 2009

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As some of you reading my blog will already know, in 2005 Congress created the “Halliburton Loophole” when it exempted the oil and gas production technique called hydraulic fracturing from federal regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. This act of Congress essentially overrode a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

A bit of background: the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) states that the term underground injection “means the subsurface emplacement of fluids by well injection.” Under the SDWA, it’s against the law for any underground injection activity to endanger drinking water sources by introducing a contaminant that may adversely affect human health. In 1997, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded, very clearly and succinctly, that “hydraulic fracturing activities constitute 'underground injection' under Part C of the SDWA.” Therefore, if hydraulic fracturing activities endangered underground sources of drinking water, it would violate the SDWA--unless of course hydraulic fracturing is exempt from the law, which is currently the case.

Industry argues that hydraulic fracturing should not be regulated under SDWA because, among other things: “…. the fluids that are pumped into the subsurface as part of the hydraulic fracturing process are intended to be removed from the formations into which they are pumped.” Industry states that: “Upon completion of the job, the vast majority of materials used in the fracturing operation are recovered, stored and often submitted for treatment by the operator.”

It’s been clear for quite a while, however, that this is not the case and that the court ruled appropriately. In 1997, the court found evidence that a portion of the injected fluids remains in the ground. Since then, more information has become available. A recent ProPublica article reported companies and a regulatory officials have stated that “as much as 85 percent of the fluids used during hydraulic fracturing is being left underground after wells are drilled in the Marcellus Shale,” a formation in the northeast.  The water treatment company ProChem Tech reports that “generally 10 to 20% is recovered.”

Reports of groundwater contamination linked to hydraulic fracturing operations have come from many different states around the country. Some of these have been unresolved for years. Groundwater in Bainbridge Township, Ohio, was contaminated after an explosion two years ago and the Northeast Ohio Gas Accountability Project reports that over 40 homes are still without their own clean running water. Groundwater testing at a farm in Pennsylvania found arsenic at 2,600 times acceptable levels and benzene at 44 times above limits. There are more examples.

Legislation has been introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate to close the Halliburton Loophole and mandate that hydraulic fracturing is federally regulated under the SDWA. The legislation is very reasonable and flexible and has support from many different types of organizations around the country. It would simply ensure that there is a minimal federal floor of protection in every state and give EPA oversight authority for this practice. Support is growing as more communities become aware of the risks involved in hydraulic fracturing.

It's time to close the Halliburton Loophole. You can easily contact your own Members of Congress and ask them to co-sponsor the legislation at the NRDC Action Center.

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Kari MatskoDec 28 2009 02:23 PM

Here is the place for updates on Bainbridge Twp, Ohio status.

In 2009 testimony Scott Kell of the Ohio regulatory body (ODNR),who is also president of the Groundwater Protection Council, noted over 900 reports of water contamination resulting from gas/oil in his career with the state and yet only 2 permits were denied during that time for environmental reasons.

Ohio issues around 1500 gas/oil permits annually. Ohio produces 5% of gas to the US market but has close to 100,000 active oil/gas wells(around 30,000 not reported)
In 2008, no permits were rejected for environmental reasons. Ohio has 16 Marcellus gas wells so far.

More Information:
An Ohio city struggles against state (ODNR) to stop drilling near community water source:

Mike CoyerDec 28 2009 10:01 PM

Just a quick note about myself. I have been working in this oil patch for the last 15 years and I am a local Historian.
Here in Northwest Ohio we are not having a problem with fracturing fluids as there has not been any drilling here in many years.
But the problems we are having is with crude oil contaminating our aquifers from the improperly plug oil/gas wells. There was not any cement used in the casing programs of these wells and the casing used was a very thin and poor grade. thus most of these casings are rusted through (they are over 100 years old). The ground water then leaks down into the oil producing zone and the oil floats up into the Aquifers. Some ares here it is impossible to drill a water well without getting crude oil. Also there are thousands of cubic feet of natural gas leaking from these wells into the atmosphere, some of this gas is H2s, which is a known greenhouse gas.
You ask just how bad can it be? Wood County Ohio is 618 square miles in size and it has been estimated that 36,000 oil wells have been drilled here. At one point there are 212 wells in one square miles. Only about 1% of these wells are plugged.

Jim McCartneyDec 28 2009 10:25 PM

As a oil & gas well driller with 23 years experience drilling primarily here in Ohio, I would like to make an important point regarding the Bainbridge explosion. Its been my experience that many of the new permitting conditions that the ODNR put into effect on 1/18/2008
that were designed to "eliminate any chance of similar occurrences in the future", are often simply ignored by some of the drillers AND the ODNR themselves!!!. I have seen the conductor casing not cemented as required or the conductor not even used a all, for no other reason than to save the driller MONEY. I have seen numerous surface holes drilled through fresh water aquifers using brine and I have never seen a relief valve installed on the surface casing to release the annulus gas if the pressure exceeded the allowable amount. Also I have seen encounters with large shallow gas flows that were not flared or recorded on the well completion record (Form 8). All these violations were regarding wells in areas that the new rules were in effect. For these unfortunate reasons and others, I believe that another Bainbridge type disaster could easily happen again in northeast Ohio. With the help of NEOGAP I brought my concerns about these violations and MANY others to the ODNR about two months ago. Unfortunately, my experiences in the industry makes me doubtful that the ODNR will do much to correct these problems. also, I'd like to point out a little known fact about plugged wells. I have helped plug oil & gas wells with cement and I have also drilled out wells that were previously plugged with cement. Through those experiences I am convinced that there are a MANY improperly plugged wells in Ohio. Jim McCartney

Amy MallDec 28 2009 11:04 PM

Dear Mike: Thank you very much for your comment about the groundwater contamination in northwest Ohio from improperly plugged, abandoned wells. I agree these are significant problems that should be addressed--both the groundwater contamination and the greenhouse gas emissions (I mentioned these wells in a previous post:

Unfortunately, oil is exempt from federal Superfund provisions regarding clean-up of hazardous waste sites, a loophole in our federal law that should be closed. But someone should be responsible for cleaning up these leaks. You can read more about this Superfund loophole on pages 25-27 of our report, Drilling Down, which can be found here:

Amy MallDec 28 2009 11:07 PM

Dear Jim: Thank you very much for posting your comment. I would like to address it in my next post.

Martha SpeaksDec 29 2009 07:59 AM

Please be careful in dealing with these gas and oil production companies. They have a history of privatizing the profits and socializing the cleanup costs of oil and gas field production. Our experience has been less than satisfactory in getting them to clean up the radioactive messes they have made. The only way to protect your property is to be at the well site making sure they are disposing of their waste properly.

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