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New legislation introduced today to close the Halliburton Loophole and regulate hydraulic fracturing

Amy Mall

Posted June 9, 2009 in Health and the Environment

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Today members in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives introduced legislation to close the so-called "Halliburton Loophole" in the Safe Drinking Water Act. This loophole, enacted by Congress in 2005, is a special favor to Halliburton and other oil and gas companies and prohibits the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from overseeing an industry practice called hydraulic fracturing.

NRDC applauds the Senators and Representatives who introduced this legislation. We support the legislation and encourage other Members of Congress to become co-sponsors. In brief, hydraulic fracturing involves the use of toxic chemicals that are injected underground, sometimes directly into underground sources of drinking water. It is a highly variable and unpredictable process that can lead to unintended consequences and is linked to contamination of drinking water. Communities have been expressing concerns about hydraulic fracturing causing drinking water contamination since the 1980s. A federal appeals court judge decided that hydraulic fracturing should be subject to federal drinking water protections, but Congress bypassed this judge's decision during the Bush administration and created a special exemption for the oil and gas industry. For more details on hydraulic fracturing, see NRDC's report Drilling Down

Oil and gas production has exploded nationwide over the last ten years, with more activity taking place near residential areas. More communities are experiencing water impacts and more people are concerned about their health and that of their children and grandchildren. As we look toward a cleaner energy future, it's time for oil and gas regulations to be updated to reflect recent knowledge about the industry's environmental impacts and advances in greener technologies. Nothing is more important to a family than being able to trust that clean drinking water is coming out of their faucet.

Oil and/or gas is being produced in 34 states, so this is clearly a national issue. State regulations vary widely according to recent articles from Hastings College of the Law and the Fordham Environmental Law Review. For example, a recent report from the Ground Water Protection Council found that not all states require surface casing of a well through the deepest groundwater zone. It is essential to have a federal minimum standard and federal oversight to ensure every state is reaching the most basic level of protection.

Back to the bill. It's a reasonable bill that provides a consistent federal standard and federal oversight, but in most states it will leave flexibility to the state as the primary regulator. It requires that companies disclose what chemicals are being used in hydraulic fracturing. The public deserves to know what is in hydraulic fracturing fluids, just like we're entitled to know what is in a can of Coke.

Some may say that no instances of drinking water contamination have been documented.  I've posted examples from around the country below:

In late 2007, three families near Grandview, Texas noticed changes in their well water just after a natural gas well within a couple of hundred yards of their properties was hydraulically fractured. Within days, five goats and a llama had died. All three families noticed strong sulfur smells in their water, which became unusable. At first their water ran dry, and then the water returned with extremely high pressure, blowing out pipes. Showering caused skin irritation. The Railroad Commission of Texas acknowledged that testing of well water found toluene and other contaminants.

In the summer of 2008, contamination of a drinking water well used by two families in Gibbs Hill, Pennsylvania occurred after hydraulic fracturing of a nearby natural gas well. One water user, a nurse, smelled strong fumes and experienced burning in her lungs and sinuses after showering. Her fiancé drank water and felt immediate burning in his mouth. The artesian well that provides the water for these families had run clean and strong for over 100 years. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection found that pressure in the gas well had exceeded the pressure in the surrounding fresh groundwater system and that there had been unpermitted discharge of hydraulic fracturing fluids.

A home in Bainbridge, Ohio, exploded in December, 2007; fortunately, no one was injured. The Ohio Division of Mineral Resources Management determined that hydraulic fracturing of a natural gas well with inadequate cementing had not been sufficiently monitored and had allowed natural gas to migrate through fractures in the bedrock into overlying aquifers and eventually into a local water well. Dozens of other drinking water wells in the area were contaminated. It took well over a year before the state ordered new water service be provided to families whose water wells were contaminated.

It's time for the hydraulic fracturing loophole to be closed. But hydraulic fracturing is only one threat to human health posed by oil and gas production. The industry generates substantial air pollution and toxic waste that can be better managed with new, cleaner, economical technologies. We need to take a comprehensive look at the environmental footprint of oil and gas production and update regulations to reduce all of the risks. For more information about the range of threats from oil and gas activities, see Drilling Down.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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