Senior Analyst for Public Lands, Environmental Working Group
Oversight Hearing on Natural Gas Drilling in the New York City Watershed, Part II
Mr. Chairman, distinguished Members of the Committee:
For the last several years, Environmental Working Group has used government and industry records to track a virtually unprecedented increase in oil and gas drilling in the Western United States. As part of our work, we have investigated the practice pioneered by Halliburton known as hydraulic fracturing that is the subject of today’s hearing.
Earlier this year, we worked with Theo Colborn, a distinguished scientist in Colorado who has identified dozens of chemicals used by the natural gas industry. We found that at least 65 chemicals used by the natural gas industry in Colorado – many of them used in hydraulic fracturing – were listed or regulated as hazardous substances under six federal statutes including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Superfund. Natural gas companies, as you know, are not required to disclose what chemicals they use.
I’d like to add to the testimony I presented to the committee in September by making a few comments about New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation’s Draft Scope for the Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement on the Oil, Gas and Solution Mining Regulatory Program, Well Permit Issuance for Horizontal Drilling and High-Volume Hydraulic Fracturing to Develop the Marcellus Shale and other Low-Permeability Gas Reservoirs.
We have reviewed the document and believe that the state is not taking seriously the threat that hydraulic fracturing and natural gas drilling poses to New York City’s drinking water. Nor is the state taking seriously the risk of water contamination in other parts of New York.
The state echoes claims made by the natural gas industry when it says that there is “no record of any documented instance of groundwater contamination caused by hydraulic fracturing for gas well development in New York, despite the use of this technology in thousands of wells across the state during the past 50 or more years.”
The state may have no record, but that does not mean that contamination has not occurred. For example, the state fails to mention how diligently it has looked for contamination or whether it has even tried. Speaker Quinn noted at September’s hearing that the state has 19 inspectors for 14,000 oil and gas wells, figures that state officials did not dispute. Those numbers do not inspire confidence that the state has the staff to perform a thorough investigation. Nor is it clear how the state could be so confident about the safety of hydraulic fracturing when companies are not required to reveal what chemicals they are using and are exempt from federal disclosure requirements under the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory. Under these circumstances, how would state officials know what contaminants to look for?
The state should disclose to this committee the results of all the tests it has performed over the past 50 years or more to determine whether hydraulic fracturing chemicals or other chemicals used in natural gas drilling in New York State have contaminated the state’s water supplies. We will be requesting this information from the state ourselves.
Even the EPA does not know what is in hydraulic fracturing fluids. According to a recent story by ProPublica, a New York-based nonprofit news outlet, EPA scientists say the lack of knowledge makes it impossible to assure the public that the drilling process is safe or to accurately track its effects.
Joyel Dhieux, a drilling field inspector who handles environmental review at the EPA’s regional offices in Denver told ProPublica in a story that ran on the front page of the Denver Post that "I am looking more and more at water quality issues…because of a growing concern…But if you don't know what's in it I don't think it’s possible."
What we do know is that hydraulic fracturing is used in 90 percent of all oil and gas wells drilled in the U.S. and that in spite of assurance from the state, drilling for natural gas and hydraulic fracturing chemicals themselves have recently been linked to water contamination and serious illness.
This summer, the Bureau of Land Management found that groundwater in Sublette County, Wyoming is contaminated with benzene, a toxic substance linked to cancer and nervous system disorders. Sublette County is the site of one of the nation’s largest natural gas fields. We found that under the Bush Administration, energy companies have drilled more than 2,300 wells in the county. The total number of wells in Sublette County is around 6,000. Thousands of wells may be drilled in New York State.
Benzene is found in hydraulic fracturing fluids and is also found in condensate, a liquid that is produced along with natural gas. The maximum safe amount of benzene in drinking water is just 5 parts per billion, and the EPA has recommended that the goal for benzene in drinking water is zero. What makes the Sublette County case so alarming is that the county is rural, and there are no likely sources of benzene contamination other than natural gas drilling.
This spring, the Durango (Colorado) Herald reported that a nurse became gravely ill after being exposed to fracturing fluids that had spilled on a natural gas worker she was treating. As the nurse suffered from liver failure, heart failure and respiratory failure, the company that manufactured the fracturing fluid refused to tell her doctor what was in it, citing the need to protect trade secrets. The doctor had to guess how to treat his patient who later recovered.
In March and April 2004, Denver’s Rocky Mountain News reported that natural gas seeping from a well drilled in Garfield County, Colorado contaminated drinking water 3,500 feet away, forcing local residents to drink bottled water. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) determined that the contamination came from an improperly cemented well drilled by Canadian company, Encana. Encana had drilled four wells within a mile of the gas leak.
It is also important to note that hydraulic fracturing can require a staggering amount of water and equipment and that operations have increased in size in recent years, especially in shale formations. The industry publication Oilfield Review reported in 1995 that a fracturing operation could involve as many as 40 vehicles, a million gallons of fluid and three million pounds of sand. A photo of a fracturing operation in the Barnett Shale near Fort Worth, Texas, indicates that even more equipment can be used. The photo is from a PowerPoint presentation given this year by a representative of Texas-based Dale Resources and is available on the website of Barnett Shale News. You can see the scale of the operation with more than 50 vehicles pictured as well as a close-up of the same operation. The Dale Resources presentation suggested that in the Barnett shale, companies may use up to four million gallons of fluid for hydraulic fracturing.
- Because of these examples and the record of toxic spills and leaks in the natural gas industry that has been documented by Colorado, New Mexico and other authorities, we continue to recommend that there be no drilling in New York City’s watershed.
- We urge the state to hold at least one hearing in New York City so that city residents can comment on the draft scope. Due to the risk to New York City’s drinking water, it would be unconscionable to exclude the city from this process.
- We urge the state to require disclosure of chemicals used in natural gas drilling – not just to state officials as the draft scope suggests – but to the general public as well.
- After disclosure of chemicals, the state should conduct its own tests of surface and groundwater near any wells where these chemicals have been used and should carefully analyze incidents of contamination associated with natural gas drilling that have occurred elsewhere including those that I have mentioned. Natural gas companies should pay for the testing.