Conventional wisdom and certain regulations suggest that injecting diesel fuel into the ground is generally not an environmentally sound idea. Diesel fuel, to nobody’s surprise, contains toxic and carcinogenic chemicals, including The Big Four: Benzene, Toluene, Ethylbenzene, and Xylene, collectively known in regulatory terms as BTEX. While part of a potent energy formula that has added vitally to the industrialization of our country – these compounds cause serious risks when let loose in nature. They can cause cancer, damage vital organs and wreck nervous systems. They dissolve easily in water. They are toxic at very low levels. Their individual dangers are compounded when they are mixed.
Diesel fuel contains all of these compounds, and despite calls for an outright ban of diesel as a primary fracking agent, it’s allowed with a Class II injection permit from the Environmental Protection Agency. There are also ways around the federal permitting process. Operators can add BTEX to fracking fluids and avoid federal regulations as long as the hydrocarbon mix doesn’t meet the technical definition of diesel. It’s up to states to regulate fracking, and because fracking is exempt from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, there are few restrictions on additives or requirements for their public disclosure.
The well service industry likes to use petroleum distillates because they are cheap and effective. According to a report from a U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce, BTEX compounds appeared in 60 hydraulic fracturing products between 2005 and 2009. During that period operators knowingly injected 11.4 million gallons of products containing at least one BTEX chemical. Despite all the talk about “green fluids” from the PR branch of the industry, many operators favor petroleum distillates to produce shale gas, and have fought hard to keep them in the mix.
Recent legislation passed in Illinois, a place where state officials have touted rules as the toughest in the land, is an example. What I find striking, after being tipped by comments from several SGR readers on my last blog-post, are eleventh hour revisions to the Illinois statute dealing with the issue of petroleum compounds as fracking agents. HB 2615, the original version of the bill, would have made it “unlawful to perform any high volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing operations by knowingly or recklessly injecting diesel or any petroleum distillates.” (Emphasis my own.) In the face of industry resistance, the final bill (SB 1715) dropped the term “petroleum distillates” and, further, defined diesel as any one of six particular chemical profiles listed by the Chemical Abstracts Service, or as “additional substances regulated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency as diesel fuel.” (The National Resources Defense Council, one of many environmental groups with mixed reviews of the Illinois regs, characterized them as falling short of safeguards, but better than "a very bad situation" of proceeding with no policy at all. You can read NRDC staffer’s Ann Alexander’s blog here. Sandra Steingraber, an environmental activists, characterized the Illinois legislation as a lame compromise at the expense of open government and public health.)
That federal policy, meanwhile, remains inconclusive and incomplete after a history of ineffectiveness. After determining in 2004 that fracking with diesel “may pose environmental concerns,” the EPA worked with delegations from some of the largest well service companies, including Halliburton, who agreed in a memorandum of understanding to voluntarily remove diesel fuel from fracking fluids. But when the companies found that diesel suited their needs in the field, they used it anyway. According to an ensuing Congressional investigation, oil and gas service companies injected over 32 million gallons of diesel fuel or hydraulic fracturing fluids containing diesel fuel into wells in 19 states between 2005 and 2009. For this, there were no permits issued, nor were fines levied. Since then, the EPA has begun a process to update its regulations on diesel and fracking and to provide a statutory definition of diesel. A precise definition is still pending along with final policy.
New York, the only state with major shale gas potential where permitting remains on hold, is also working on regulations that state officials have touted as the “best in the country.” Yet these regulations, as proposed, do not outlaw BTEX and other petroleum distillates. Nor do they forbid diesel fuel unless it is used as “a base fluid.” In other words, diesel can be added to fracking recipes, as long as the fluid is not the base ingredient. (In that case, operators would have to get a permit under the still undeveloped federal policy.)
The use of petroleum distillates to serve our lives is not unusual or categorically dangerous – Gasoline after all contains BTEX and inherent risks, and there is little doubt about consequences of using it improperly. Yet most of us encounter the handling and burning of gasoline in our workaday travels. This is because the use of gasoline – and risks related to spills or dumping – are tightly controlled.
With fracking, the regulatory controls are much weaker, due largely to the failure of state and federal governments to keep pace with the rapid advancement of the domestic shale gas industry along with its monumental stakes on public welfare.