Journalism in the Public Interest

Information From Gas-Drilling Companies Isn’t Coming Easily, Congressmen Say

A congressional committee has been trying – without success—to get some answers from gas companies involved in hydraulic fracturing. The quest for information shows how responsibility for drilling operations can be diffused among a variety of contractors.


(Photo by Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica)

Gas and oil companies have deflected congressional inquiries about whether they are drilling near underground drinking water sources and how they are disposing of the chemical-laden wastewater their operations produce, according to a news release issued by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass.

The congressmen, both members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, tried to get answers to these questions by sending letters to 14 oil and gas service companies that use a controversial drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing. The process involves pumping millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals deep underground to break rock and release the gas beneath. When the water resurfaces, it contains natural toxins like benzene, which can carry cancer risks. It can also contain small amounts of chemicals added to enhance drilling.

But the 14 companies -- which include Halliburton and Universal Well Services -- said that because they are "well servicers" and not "well operators," they don't maintain the information the congressmen are asking for. Markey and Waxman are members of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which in February began investigating the potential environmental and human health impacts of natural gas drilling.

Now the congressmen are turning to 10 industry giants for the information, including BP America, Encana Corporation and Chesapeake Energy Corporation. In letters (PDF) sent on Monday, they gave the companies until July 26 to notify them whether they'll comply with the request and until Aug. 6 to actually deliver the information.

The lawmakers' quest for information shows how responsibility for drilling operations can be diffused among a variety of contractors, each doing a different job.

For instance, BJ Services, a company that designs wells and pumps the water underground, told the congressmen that it "does not track or maintain such data because it is the responsibility of the well operator to drill in compliance with the applicable statutes and regulations concerning subsurface aquifers."

When it began its investigation earlier this year, the committee cited (PDF) several stories by ProPublica about water pollution linked to gas drilling. In one of those stories, ProPublica found that drilling wastewater in Pennsylvania was being sent to municipal sewage treatment plants, which didn't have the equipment to properly remove the chemicals from it. As a result, the wastewater contaminated a river that provides drinking water to 350,000 people in the Pittsburgh area. In another story, ProPublica found that many sewage plant operators in New York state don't want to take wastewater because they fear their facilities can't properly treat it.

ProPublica has also uncovered several instances in which underground sources of drinking water have been affected by drilling.

Dominick Mastroserio

July 20, 2010, 6:46 p.m.

Something is awfully amiss in America when congressmen are flagrantly given the run around by mega energy corporations who think they’re above the American people and the law.

What is awfully amiss is that lawmakers assigned to committees responsible to the people for assuring that protections are strictly adhered to by energy monopolies - are only capable of writing laws these greed giants are adept at circumventing.  It cannot be for lack of knowledge on the lawmakers’ part.  They are far too easily assuaged by the tacit assurances of these greed goons to believe they’ve not been traduced.

It is articles of this sort that infuriate me most because of the ‘business as usual’ tenor assumed by the public discourse about the critical and potentially cataclysmic consequences these issues really imply.

These congressmen should be dragging these mega greedsters before Congress on felony charges of conspiracy to defraud the public,  of misfeasance and malfeasance for profit and for maliciously endangering the public safety.

Once again the specter of deferred initiative for the implimentation and standardization of alternative and green energies comes out to haunt the essential fiber of civilization.

Smarmy and disrespectful. These are the corporate “persons”  that Scalia and Roberts are so concerned about. Their corporate charters should be revoked.

Mr Sapien’s article is little more than a glorified press release from Waxman. Investigative journalism at its finest!

Dom,  You need to know your facts.  Fracturing companies only supply the pumps and hook ups to pump down what the drillers wants to open up the shale.  So the the fracturing companies are right.  go to the drillers if you want to know what is going down hole.  Also I may point out that this fluid is being pumped down to 5000 to over 9000 feet into the earth.  water sources are well within the first 500 feet and none below 1000 that i am aware of.  They also cement off or case off the first 3000 feet.  so tell me how in the world is fracturing fluid going to get into the ground water supply?. 

you keep saying GREEDY corporations.  I never got a job from a poor person or poor corporation.  It is a proven fact that it is capitalism that works.  that is if you can keep the government from screwing it up.  The desire to make money, and yes a lot of it,  is a good thing.  it motivates discovery, inovations, and provides variety.  without this GREED you seemed to be so focused on and is the buzz word for liberals, we would not have most of what we use everyday.  thinks about it.  most of what we have for our convienient and easy living came from someone or a group of individuals who wanted to make a lot of money be using an idea, a product, or developing a system to sell to others.  Take money out of the equasion then there is no motivation to take risk and recieve reward for your efforts.  Last time i checked most great inventions and discoveries came from this great capitalist society or others who are mostly democratic atleast.  the socialist and communist are pretty much void of this advantage. 
Just read history.  and try reading Atlas Shrugged.  And as one great economist said “what is greed”.  it is different with every individual.  And “everyone is greedy at one time or the other, it is only natural and productive”.

The rush is on in PA before the regulators can catch up.  Now its drilling by a hospital in Plains Township, PA.  Next will be drilling on the shores of drinking water reservoirs?

Pat said: “Also I may point out that this fluid is being pumped down to 5000 to over 9000 feet into the earth.  water sources are well within the first 500 feet and none below 1000 that i am aware of.  They also cement off or case off the first 3000 feet.  so tell me how in the world is fracturing fluid going to get into the ground water supply?”

Here are several ways that fracturing fluid could end up in drinking water supplies (groundwater and/or surface supplies such as reservoirs or rivers):

1) Spills at the drilling site
2) Improperly cemented gas wells
3) Migration through abandoned, unplugged gas wells—the NYSDEC estimates that tens of thousands of these old, unmapped wells exist in NY
4) Migration through underground fractures (the gas industry likes to say this is impossible, yet the industry does not seem to have done the research necessary to support this assertion)

A home without drinking water is worthless. Hydraulic fracturing is a HUGE gamble.

Can’t define greed? How about more interested in money than someone else’s water supply? Or the water supply for the whole City of New York? When we have a chance, we might then ask the 11 dead rig workers, and the entire Gulf of Mexico about the marvels of poorly regulated capitalism. Superior to “the socialist or communist”, and if so that ends the inquiry?  Atlas Shrugged my ass.

Sweeney - based on your argument -
1. - Surface spills - does this mean that we should ban all chemical use on the surface of the earth?  We have a gasoline transportation infrastructure that requires millions of gallons of gasoline to be trucked and stored above our aquifers.  I’ve not read any analysis that would suggest that stimulation chemistry or flowback water is more dangerous than gasoline.
2.  Improperly cemented wells have been the cause of shallow strata natural gas migration - but nobody has ever found a case of and aquifer contaminated by stimulation chemistry.
3. unplugged wells generally are far shallower than the target shale formations - but do contribute to e-coli contamination from farm waste water traveling downhole.
4.  Migration through underground fractures is highly unlikely due the the fact that fluids will follow the pressure gradient - i.e. the well bore to move from high to low pressure.

There is certainly risk to gas production, but it is significantly less than coal. 

Perhaps those supporting the moratorium on hydraulic fracturing should amend Thompson’s bill to make the import of hydraulically fractured gas illegal in NY.

Stay warm this winter.

Drilling bans are nothing more than support for coal mining.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

Fracking: Gas Drilling’s Environmental Threat

The promise of abundant natural gas is colliding with fears about water contamination.

The Story So Far

The country’s push to find clean domestic energy has zeroed in on natural gas, but cases of water contamination have raised serious questions about the primary drilling method being used. Vast deposits of natural gas, large enough to supply the country for decades, have brought a drilling boom stretching across 31 states. The drilling technique being used, called hydraulic fracturing, shoots water, sand and toxic chemicals into the ground to break up rock and release the gas.

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