UPDATE (Oct. 8, 2014): On Oct. 6, EIP sent a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy identifying an additional 243 wells that were fracked with diesel fuel between 2011 and August 2014. These include wells drilled by 35 different companies, 10 of which were identified in EIP’s original report. They cover 12 states, including nine in the original report and three new states (Alaska, Louisiana, and Virginia).

Similar to its original report, EIP’s follow-up investigation used FracFocus to identify that these wells used diesel as a fracking fluid. However, they did not investigate whether operators obtained the required diesel permits. EIP’s letter urges EPA to ensure that operators using diesel obtain permits and to take action against violators. They also ask EPA to work with FracFocus, well operators, and state governments to improve the transparency and accuracy of chemical disclosure.

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When it comes to protecting drinking water, fracking companies have just one federal rule to follow – get a permit if they are using diesel. But a new report by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) indicates that many drillers can’t even abide by this simple requirement.

Thanks to an ill-advised loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act – often called the Halliburton loophole – hydraulic fracturing (fracking) activities are exempt from drinking water protection standards – unless the drilling companies use diesel fuel. Diesel is the only fracking fluid that requires a federal permit.

Diesel fluids contain toxic chemicals such as benzene and toluene that are harmful, even in small amounts, and are known cancer-causing substances. Even small leaks into groundwater pose serious health concerns. For instance, water containing more than five parts per billion of benzene (equal to five drops in a swimming pool) is considered unsafe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  

Permits are required to help protect groundwater from diesel contamination, and companies with diesel permits must take additional precautions. These include mapping possible routes to drinking water sources, conducting baseline testing of groundwater, and notifying landowners that they are going to use diesel. Failing to obtain permits bypasses these necessary safeguards and puts communities at risk of contaminated drinking water.

However, EIP’s report found that at least 351 wells have been fracked using diesel fluids without necessary permits. These include wells drilled by 33 different companies in 12 states between January 2010 and July 2014. Well operators reported using diesel to FracFocus, an industry-run database to which companies voluntarily disclose fracking fluids. EIP obtained permitting data from EPA and found that none of these operators had applied for or obtained permits.

Moreover, the actual number of wells being fracked with diesel is likely higher, for several reasons:

  1. FracFocus only contains information on fracking from a handful of states. It is generally a voluntary reporting site, though a few states require reporting to FracFocus.
     
  2. FracFocus allows drilling companies to withhold any information as a “trade secret,” including the identity of fracking fluids that could include diesel.
     
  3. Third, the site does nothing to confirm the accuracy of any information that companies report or claims of “trade secrets.”

The Center for Effective Government has consistently raised these and other concerns about FracFocus and urged the Bureau of Land Management not to use the site for its collection and disclosure of fracking data because of these shortcomings.

Further underscoring the concern about possible data manipulation on FracFocus, companies later removed reports of diesel use at 143 wells, which they had previously submitted to the site. FracFocus allows companies to alter reports for any reason without public notification. 

The EIP report also noted that while the oil and gas industry claims diesel has been phased out, companies such as Halliburton continue to sell fracking fluids containing diesel and do not notify purchasers that they are required to seek a special permit before use.

To address this problem, the EPA can and should immediately open investigations into the 351 wells included in the EIP report. Moreover, state and regional EPA underground injection programs should also investigate the practice of unpermitted drilling. We need to ensure that companies are playing by the rules and that our groundwater is being protected from toxic diesel contamination.

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