Jan 26, 2010

EWG: Drinking Water Threatened by Toxic Natural Gas, Oil Drilling Chemicals

Group says drilling companies skirt federal law requiring permits for diesel in wells across the country

A new report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) titled “Drilling Around the Law” indicates that companies drilling for natural gas and oil are skirting federal law and injecting toxic petroleum distillates into thousands of wells, threatening drinking water supplies from New York to Wyoming.

These distillates include kerosene, mineral spirits and a number of other petroleum products that often contain high levels of benzene, a known human carcinogen that is toxic in water. Drillers inject these substances into the earth under extremely high pressure in a process called hydraulic fracturing that energy companies use to extract natural gas and oil from underground formations. The process, known as “fracking,” fractures the rock to allow additional gas and oil to flow to the surface. Fracking is currently used in 90% of the nation’s natural gas and oil wells.

The petroleum distillates used in a single well could contain enough benzene to contaminate more than 100 billion gallons of drinking water to unsafe levels, according to drilling company disclosures in New York state and published studies. That is more than 10 times as much water as the entire state of New York uses in a single day.

Fracking has already been linked to drinking water contamination and property damage in Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wyoming.

"When companies say that they will not use diesel and then use other petroleum distillates, it’s a bit like promising not to smoke Marlboros and then lighting up a Camel,” said EWG Senior Counsel Dusty Horwitt. “As far as the toxic components, the products are at least as dangerous.”

Other petroleum distillates typically contain the same highly toxic chemicals as diesel: benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. Distillates disclosed in records analyzed by EWG have been found to contain up to 93 times more benzene than diesel but require no authorization prior to use.

State and federal regulatory agencies surveyed in the report are generally not tracking fluids used in fracturing and some agencies, including the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said the federal Safe Drinking Water Act completely exempts fracking--even with diesel, EWG said.