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Oil and Gas Hidden Subsidies Can be Hazardous to Your Health!

September 26, 2011

Don’t get me wrong with what I say in this discussion. Firstly, natural gas being a domestic resource base and a cleaner fuel than coal and gasoline makes sense as an alternative energy source, at least in the short-term.  Secondly, my house sits on top of the Barnett Shale, the third major gas reserve in the U.S., and have received compensation from leasehold agreements and royalty payments from a natural gas exploration and drilling company. I have published several papers on the benefits of natural gas as a logical alternative to gasoline, coal and even nuclear.

Besides the Barnett Shale play around Fort Worth, TX with an estimated 44 TCP (trillion cubic feet) of natural gas, other larger deposits include the Marcellus Shale play in the Appalachian basis in New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia with an estimated 262 TCF of natural gas and the Haynesville Shale play in Louisiana and Texas with an estimated 251 CF of natural gas.

In Texas, the Barnett Shale has been a tremendous economic boost to the economy and a primary driver of job creation. It has allowed our region to weather the financial collapse better than most other regions in the U.S. But what’s right is right and what’s fare is fare.  What this has to do with is the 2005 Safe Drinking Water Act (“SDWA”), which is intended to ensure safe drinking water for the public. We will get back to the SDWA shortly.

A little education on natural gas drilling technology is in order. What made extraction of natural gas in shale deposits feasible is a confluence of two technologies; horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, often referred to as “fracking.” The gas is tightly locked in shale rocks. Horizontal fracking enables the driller to pump fracturing fluid into the wellbore at a high rate, which then raises the pressure, causing the rocks to crack and release natural gas into the boreholes which are kept open with the help of solid proppants (sand)contained within the fracturing fluid. By nature, fracking is water intensive requiring anywhere from 2 million to 4 million gallons per well. After injection most of the fracking fluid is extracted from the wellbore.

The fracturing fluid is slurry composed of 98% water and sand. The fracking fluid is proprietary mixture of between 3 and 12 chemical additives, which include:

• Diluted Acid – Hydrochloric acid or muriatic acid (Swimming pool chemical)
• Biocide – Glutaraldehyde (Disinfectant; sterilize medical and dental equipment)
• Breaker – Ammonium persulfate (Bleaching agent in detergent and hair cosmetics0
• Corrosion Inhibitor – N,n-dimethyl formamide (Used in pharmaceuticals, acrylic fibers, plastics)
• Crosslinker – Borate salts (Laundry detergents, hand soaps, and cosmetics)
• Friction Reducer – Polyacrylamide (Water treatment, soil conditioner) and/or Mineral oil (Make-up remover, laxatives, and candy)
• Gel – Guar gum or hydroxyethyl cellulose (Cosmetics, toothpaste, sauces, baked goods, ice cream)
• Iron Control – Citric acid (Food additive, flavoring in food and beverages; Lemon Juice ~7% Citric Acid)
• KCI – Potassium chloride (Low sodium table salt substitute)
• Oxygen Scavenger – Ammonium bisulfite (Cosmetics, food and beverage processing, water treatment)
• pH Adjusting Agent – Sodium or potassium carbonate (Washing soda, detergents, soap, water softener, glass and ceramics)
• Proppant – Silica, quartz sand (Drinking water filtration, play sand, concrete, brick mortar)
• Scale Inhibitor- Ethylene glycol (Automotive antifreeze, household cleansers, and deicing agent)
• Surfactant – Isopropanol (Glass cleaner, antiperspirant, and hair color)

As seem in the above list, most of the chemical additives are commonly used and seem to present little of no health risk. However, several are classified as a toxic or hazardous substance. MSDS (Material Safety and Data Sheets) for a few additives indicates:

• Glutaraldehyde –  Hazardous in case of skin contact (irritant), of eye contact (irritant), of ingestion, of inhalation (lung irritant, lung sensitizer).
• Ammonium persulfate  – Harmful if swallowed
• N,n-dimethyl formamide – Hazardous in case of skin contact (irritant, permeator), of eye contact (irritant), of ingestion, of inhalation.
• Guar gum or hydroxyethyl cellulose – Severe eye irritant. Harmful if swallowed or inhaled, and in contact with the skin. Laboratory experiments have shown mutagenic effects.
• Ethylene glycol – Harmful or fatal if swallowed, harmful if inhaled or absorbed through skin, may cause allergic skin reaction, may cause irritation to skin, eyes, and respiratory tract, affects central nervous system.

It must be prefaced that most of the fracking fluid is extracted from the wellbore, wellbores are cased in a steel liner and that these chemical additives are present in low concentrations.

The point of this discussion is despite the widespread use of the practice Congress exempted hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005. Over the last two years many environmental organizations and water management authorities have begun to  argue that shale gas exploration has developed so rapidly that federal and state regulatory agencies and industries practices have not kept pace and threats to water and air quality are growing.  In August 2010 New York State passed a bill that mandated a 10-month ban on drilling in shale gas formations due to concerns about drinking water.

On the other hand, it can be argued that the U.S. is too highly regulated with the result that the regulations impede progress and gives an undue competitive disadvantage to U.S. companies and enterprises.  However, one must really question the rationale behind exempting fracking from the Clean Water Act. Here is a case where fluid possibly containing some levels of hazardous and toxic wastes is injected into the ground and can get away basically scot free.

Ironically, the Oil and Gas industry (“O&G”) must comply with the SDWA when it disposes fracturing fluids, but not when it injects those same fluids when drilling a gas well. The oil and gas industry is the only industry in America that is allowed by EPA to inject known hazardous materials — unchecked — directly into or adjacent to underground drinking water supplies.

In closing, while the federal government opens the door to O&G with an array of direct and hidden subsidies as well as limited regulations, the renewable energy industry is continually faced with evaporating subsidies and a long, arduous and costly regulatory approval process. To underscore the political dichotomy between these two industries, hiding below the radar is an O&G exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act. The answers to this dilemma are obvious but defy common logic and demonstrate our lawmakers’ indifference to human health and safety, when oil and gas are concerned.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Clifford Goudey permalink
    September 27, 2011 12:32 PM

    Barry, your opening premise, “natural gas being a domestic resource base and a cleaner fuel than coal and gasoline makes sense as an alternative energy source” is flawed. It is only marginally cleaner from a CO2 perspective (0.19 kg CO2 / kWh vs. 0.30 kg CO2 / kWh for coal). And that is based on what gets into the combustion chamber. Spilled coal is easy to sweep up while leaked and vented NG may render the above advantage moot. Furthermore, natural gas is by no means “alternative.” Alternative to what? It’s just another fossil fuel that dirty energy wants us to focus on at the expense of a real solution.

  2. Anonymous permalink
    September 27, 2011 12:38 PM

    Why Keep paying for Something U Can Use Again like Electricity. The Problems are Fully Funded! The Solution is in your Face! What U gone Do?

  3. September 27, 2011 4:04 PM


    I hear all the concerns and am aware of the 2010 film “Gasland,” about water pollution and health problems around shale wells and the study published by the professors at Cornell University, which indicates shale wells leaks methane during production.

    I chose to wait until the EPA finishes their investigation initiated in response to public complaints.

    However, all these problems can be fixed. It is as I said; fracking needs proper and sane regulations.


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