State regulators dismiss frack-fluid ID-tagging proposal

Environmental activists are calling on Colorado officials to require oil and gas companies to chemically tag the fluids used in hydraulic fracturing, an increasingly controversial natural gas drilling process. Many suspect that “fracking” may be contaminating ground water, and chemical tags would make it possible for regulators to identify the source of any contamination.

The idea is a hot topic among those favoring increased federal oversight of the process, but industry officials won’t even discuss the idea, and state regulators say it’s barely on their radar screens.

Frack-water pipes in a rural neighborhood in Texas (Photo: TxSharon)
Frack-water pipes in a rural neighborhood in Texas (Photo: TxSharon)

“It’s my understanding that it might be conceivable to use a chemical tag with fracking fluid,” said David Neslin, executive director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC). “I’m not aware of anyone who’s doing that, and we went through an extensive rule-making last year and I don’t recall that being proposed as part of our rule-making process by any of the participants.”

Neslin said a number of other state safeguards were put in place to regulate hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, when the new COGCC rules were adopted by the legislature last spring, but chemical tagging was not one of them. Nor does he or anyone on his staff think it’s necessary.

“I’ve worked here for quite some time and we’ve never seen a groundwater contamination that was related to a frack job that occurred while the fracking was going on,” said COGCC environmental manager Debbie Baldwin. “Nonetheless, we’ve investigated complaints where people have alleged that they’ve been impacted by frack fluids and … and we will look for the major components of frack fluids to see whether or not an impact has occurred.

“So no, we’re not looking at operator-specific, or manufacturer-specific tags, but we certainly look for the chemical constituents of the frack fluid.”

Fracking involves injecting at extremely high pressures a mixture of mostly water and sand with a low percentage of undisclosed chemicals deep into natural gas wells in order to fracture tight geological formations and free up more gas. Colorado Congresswoman Diana DeGette last summer (D-Denver) introduced the FRAC Act (Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals) to mandate EPA oversight under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Industry officials contend there has never been a verified case of groundwater contamination resulting from the process, although critics say that’s because officials don’t know what chemicals to test for. And recent cases in Pennsylvania suggest fracturing operations deep underground can communicate with groundwater.

A spokeswoman for Williams, the most active natural gas producer on Colorado’s Western Slope, referred questions about the concept of chemical tagging to the COGCC. And at a meeting last week of the Garfield County Energy Advisory Board, an associate professor of the Petroleum Engineering Department at the Colorado School of Mines referred chemical tagging questions to the COGCC as well.

“It would seem to me with all the chemical compounds we have out here anymore, they could come up with some chemical that’s relatively inert that could be issued to a company so that when they frack Exxon’s well or Encana’s well or Williams’ well, whatever chemical is assigned to them has to be a part of that fracking fluid,” said Bob Elderkin, a biologist and retired oil and gas specialist for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management who now lives near Silt.

“Then if we have an upset condition, now all we have to do is check for one chemical and whatever that chemical is, if there’s no other people are drilling there, then it’s pretty obvious, but the very presence of that specific chemical in somebody’s well or in the creek ties right back to the company. That would just prove that you are in fact polluting something.”

Industry officials argue EPA oversight and the FRAC Act’s requirement to publicly disclose fracking fluid chemicals to regulators is akin to Coke being forced to share its secret formula with Pepsi. Elderkin and other industry critics aren’t buying that argument.

“They could keep the fracking mix confidential but the tag should be public information,” he said. “It’s just one chemical. It has nothing to do with the fracking fluid; all it does is identify it.”

But Neslin said in the many meetings he’s had with his regulatory counterparts from other states he’s never heard chemical tracers or tags for fracking fluids even being discussed.

In New York, where the state is on the verge of a major drilling boom in the Marcellus Shale, some politicians are calling for an outright drilling ban in New York City’s water supply, while others say tracers should be used to show what potential pollution is occurring from current drilling operations.

Leslie Robinson, a Rifle-based activist with the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, says there’s a good reason the industry doesn’t want to uses tracers to either prove or disprove fracking contamination.

“I brought up the idea about a chemical tracer at the [Garfield County] Energy Advisory Board meeting and a COGCC employee was there, too,” Robinson said. “The comments from industry were they don’t know all the chemicals used in fracking fluid since its proprietary info, let alone introduce another chemical in the mix. And the COGCC guy said there are 40,000 wells in Colorado and it would be impracticable to come up with that many different chemical tracers.”

She added that the costs associated with such a process would be a sticking point for the industry.

“Some chemical engineer out there could make some money if they ‘invented’ chemical tracers for drilling rigs,” Robinson said. “However, probably only a random surface owner would pay for it. Keeping drill rig seep sources as confusing to trace as possible, reasonable deniability, seems to work for the industry … and the state.”

However, Neslin said such tracers would not have had any effect in the two most high-profile cases of contamination in Garfield County – West Divide Creek and Prather Springs – because neither one resulted from a fracking operation.

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