How Deregulation Works for Fracking

The Bush/Cheney administration deregulated fracking from the purview of the federal government with the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which exempted hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations from federal laws and gave jurisdiction and authority over fracking to the states, municipalities, and individual property owners. Ever since, the fracking industry has mushroomed across the land from Pennsylvania to Wyoming to Texas, growing at a 50 percent annual rate. Correspondingly, and following directly in the footsteps of fracking operators, the number of cases of poisoned drinking water, dead farm animals, deformed house pets, fire-flaming water faucets, skin rashes, recurring boils, burned throats and noses, asthma, impaired breathing of house pets, emaciated cattle, loss of hair, diarrhea, and the trucking of bottled water have grown at an alarming rate.

The oil and gas industry is the only industry in America that is allowed by the EPA to inject hazardous materials—unchecked—directly into, or adjacent to, underground drinking water supplies.

According to an investigative report by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2011, fracking uses 750 compounds of which 650 of these contain chemicals that are known, or possible, human carcinogens. Fracking companies blast these chemicals one to three miles underground to extract oil and gas. What if these chemicals get into our water supply? This is already happening. Fracking is exempt from:

  • Safe Drinking Water Act
  • Clean Water Act
  • Clean Air Act
  • CERCLA (Superfund Act)
  • Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
    (Hazardous Waste)
  • Environmental Policy Act

In 2001, a special task force on energy policy convened by Vice President Dick Cheney recommended that Congress exempt hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act. The Energy Policy Act of 2005— based on a “suspect” 2004 EPA study on coal hydraulic fracturing to justify the passing of the exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act—is known as the Halliburton Loophole. The review board for the EPA study consisted of seven independently appointed professionals, including: (1) Morris Bell of Amoco, (2) David Hill, of Emerging Resources-Gas Technology Institute, (3) Buddy McDaniel of Halliburton, (4) Jon Olson of Exxon, and (5) Ian Palmer of BP. Five of the seven “deciders” came directly from the  oil and gas industry.

Their recommendations to exempt fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act were subsequently panned by EPA whistleblower Weston Wilson (EPA, Environmental Engineer), who sent a letter in protest on October 8, 2004 to U.S. Senators and House members. Evidently they did not take Wilson seriously.

Additionally, the Oil and Gas Accountability Project criticized the same EPA study, concluding the study selectively ignored crucial facts not supportive of the study’s results. Their analysis states: “We found that EPA removed information from earlier drafts that suggested unregulated fracturing poses a threat to human health and that the Agency did not include information that suggests fracturing fluids may pose a threat to drinking water….” (“Our Drinking Water at Risk: What EPA and the Oil and Gas Industry Don’t Want us to Know About Hydraulic Fracturing,” Oil and Gas Accountability Project, April, 2005.)

All of the above aside, there may be some relief in site because fracking industry behemoths like Halliburton and Baker Hughes are working on “green fracking” formulations. But this has yet to stand the test of a newly awakened populace to the risks inherent in massively pressuring sand, water, and chemicals into very tight formations deep within the earth, possibly releasing radioactive material picked up in wastewater during fracking, which then appears downstream in drinking water supplies, as reported by the New York Times in early 2011.

Fracking is the energy industry’s new Holy Grail, the answer to energy independence, cleaner energy locked into humongous formations within the earth under states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, North Dakota, and 20 others. However, one miscalculation and the massive contamination of chemicals leaked into the wrong channel may result in poisoning of the nation’s water aquifers. This has already happened in Wyoming where the residents of Pavilion have been warned by the EPA to use ventilation when showering in order to air out potentially dangerous chemicals and to drink and cook from bottled water.

Chemicals in the Water

In December 2011, the EPA announced the detection of gas-fracking chemicals in a drinking-water aquifer in West-Central Wyoming. Granted there is no way one poisoned aquifer in a remote area of West-Central Wyoming will stop fracking, but consider the following: fracking is a discordant industry with numerous competitors at each other’s throats, vying for land positions and protective of their secret chemical formulas in order to best their competitors in the prodigiously disruptive release of deep underground energy locked in extraordinarily tight formations. It is precisely because of the brutal, competitive nature of the industry that risks are heightened.

Individual complaints have no recourse because fracking companies, like Halliburton, have managed to legally protect the identities of the chemicals they use in individual wells as trade secrets. So, there is no way for a governmental regulatory agency or an individual property owner to match the poisonous chemicals in water with the perpetrator. Only recently has the EPA figured this out—for example, in Pavilion, Wyoming. Nevertheless, from Pennsylvania to Montana to Texas there are a large number of legal settlements between landowners with poisoned water and energy fracking, each case involving a monetary settlement for the harmed party (who usually no longer has potable water—according to the Montreal Gazette of January 7, 2012, federal regulators are considering trucking fresh water to Dimock, Pennsylvania after city residents supplied the EPA hundreds of pages of data linking water contamination in the city to fracking) and an agreement that the legal documents are to be sealed, not available to the public. Case closed.

Chemicals We Know Nothing About

What the future holds for fracking and for the viability of our underground drinking water may hinge on determining how potable water actually flows and how channels of water connect underground and/or how much fracking fluid returns to the surface. According to a NY Times investigative study, gas has seeped into underground drinking water in at least five states, including Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and West Virginia. Residents blame natural-gas drilling. One of the foremost experts on fracking chemicals, Dr. Theo Colborn, President of Endocrine Disruption Exchange, claims the industry uses 944 chemicals of which we know nothing—about 43 percent of the chemicals are legally classified as trade secrets by the oil and gas industry. Further, Colborn claims that 30-70 percent of the chemicals forced underground return to the surface. Colborn warns against potential outbreaks of endocrine malaises like cancer should the chemicals resurface or get into drinking water underground. The problem is that endocrine problems take years to show up.

There is no central reporting source for groundwater contamination from fracking, but according to,  state regulators have documented over 1,000 incidents of groundwater contamination related to fracking across the country. Fracking utilizes prodigious quantities of fresh water—approximately four to nine million gallons are injected with every frack. This is the equivalent of the daily fresh water usage by 60,000 U.S. households. A single well can be fracked up to 12 times, meaning over a lifetime a well can use up 100 million gallons of freshwater—equivalent to 1,200,000 householder’s daily usage of freshwater. In the Delaware River Basin in New York and Pennsylvania, the gas industry estimates it will use over 10 billion gallons of water in the next 10 years, withdrawing from the same sources that supply the public.

Much of the fracking fluid stays underground, but nobody has a device to measure what happens. It is believed by some outside of the energy industry, like, that the fractures created by fracking may intersect with existing cracks in the ground, possibly allowing the chemicals and gas to “catch a ride on underground streams” on the way to drinking water sources. Of course this is pure hypothesis because nobody can see what is really happening. The only way we’ll ever know for sure is if the chemicals show up in aquifers, similar to the Pavilion, Wyoming case. The question then becomes, How do we reverse poisoned aquifers?

Who knows where the hundreds of millions of gallons, more likely billions of gallons, of chemically-laced fluids will end up one day. Maybe in your children or grandchildren’s water supply. Then what? This story begs a question: If the EPA-sponsored studies in 2004 under the Bush administration clearly demonstrated no harmful concerns from hydraulic fracking, then why exempt it from the Safe Water Drinking Water Act?


Robert Hunziker lives in Los Angeles, California and has published stories on fracking on Counterpunch and in Firebrand Magazine.