TERRY GROSS, host:
We just heard about some of the damaging effects of the toxins used in and created by the process of gas drilling called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Let's bring back journalist Abrahm Lustgarten, who investigates the oil and gas industries for ProPublica. This year, he won a George Polk Award for environmental reporting.
So one of the amazing things about the story - of the use of hydraulic fracturing to extract gas from rock formations - is that any contaminants released by this process are exempted from EPA regulation and from the Safe Drinking Water Act. How did that happen?
Mr. LUSTGARTEN: In 2005, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act. This was the culmination of the Bush administration's energy policy, and the meetings that Vice President Richard Cheney had under the Energy Task Force in early 2000 and 2001. The Energy Policy Act essentially created a loophole that exempted the process of hydraulic fracturing from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. In some ways, it was a clarification. The Safe Drinking Water Act is intended to regulate any fluids that are injected underground.
The Safe Drinking Water Act stipulated that the fluids injected for hydraulic fracturing are used in the production of a resource and are then removed and therefore, dont constitute the disposal of fluids - and therefore, shouldnt be regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act.,
However you reason it, the net effect was that the exemption was created, and the EPA's authority to regulate the specific process of hydraulic fracturing was removed. Ever since 2005, the EPA has not been able to invoke federal regulations that govern what tests are done before the hydraulic fracturing process is conducted, how the process itself is conducted, or examining what impacts it has after it's been done.
GROSS: There was a 2004 EPA study that said that fracking posed no risk to drinking water, and that study helped lead to the EPA exemption in the 2005 energy bill. But you say in that 2004 EPA study, that there was some - almost collusion between the gas industry and the EPA on that.
Mr. LUSTGARTEN: Well, we filed for - under Freedom of Information Act, we filed for papers and documents that led to the writing and publishing of that report. And some of what we saw were emails and meeting notes that showed a direct negotiation - in this case between Halliburton, which is one of companies that conducts hydraulic fracturing in the United States, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
As the EPA was deciding hoe to represent its conclusions, was deciding how to word its report, Halliburton had essentially asked that they not receive as much intense scrutiny, as much inspection scrutiny from the EPA, in exchange for an agreement to stop using diesel fuel in their hydraulic fracturing solutions.
Diesel fuel was one of the chemicals of greatest concern because it contains benzene, which is a known carcinogen and was one of the most important chemicals being used at the time for hydraulic fracturing - and probably presented some of the greatest threat to drinking water supplies. So there was a little bit of a back and forth that was illuminated in the EPA's internal documents before it reached that conclusion.
GROSS: So it was like a negotiation - a bargain.
Mr. LUSTGARTEN: It was a negotiation. The EPA signed a memorandum of understanding. It was a voluntary agreement with Halliburton and Schlumberger and BJ Services, which are two other companies that do a lot of the hydraulic fracturing in the United States. It got their verbal and written promise not to use diesel fuel, presumably in exchange for lighter regulatory scrutiny. But the EPA, in turn, didnt take away any hard and fast ability to enforce that agreement. It's really a handshake agreement.
GROSS: So did the oil industry follow through on its agreement with the EPA, and stop using benzene?
Mr. LUSTGARTEN: We heard for years that that agreement had been voluntarily complied with. I did a great deal of reporting with those companies, with BJ Services and Halliburton, looking at what chemicals they were using in a variety of situations, and was consistently told that diesel fuel in particular was not being used. Then we learned just a couple of months ago, in response to some documents that had been submitted to Henry Waxman for one of his inquiries, that in fact BJ Services and Halliburton had both continued to use diesel fuel in large volumes at some of their wells.
It's not clear yet. That committee has not made all of its information public or followed up on the issue, but at the time, Halliburton and BJ said that it was an oversight, that it was not being regularly practiced across many of their well sites but had, apparently, been used at a few. But I think that that shows the lack of ability of the EPA, because it doesnt have authority to come and check to make sure that diesel fuel is not used for hydraulic fracturing.
GROSS: Gas companies are trying to buy leases to drill on as much land as possible - that the gas companies think might have gas. And so they're going to landowners in many states now, saying give us access to your land so that we can drill. It won't affect you, be no problem. What are the implications of that, because a lot of landowners are saying yes, and that means that the gas companies are getting access to a lot of land in, you say, about 32 states?
Mr. LUSTGARTEN: Yes, in 32 states. It's a very interesting impact on these local communities. And one of the things that is dramatically different about natural gas exploration, as opposed to the ways that weve become familiar with oil exploration, is that gas can happen, spread across a landscape in numerous locations in small-scale facilities. It happens closer to inhabited areas, rural and urban, than any other energy extraction process has in the past. And it tends to infiltrate the communities in which it happens, because it is barely noticed at first, and it seems to be low impact - until it is large, and up and running.
Leasing of lands - what's happening now, across Pennsylvania and New York, is an extremely attractive prospect for these communities. These are places, typically, with very low incomes who need an economic stimulus; Love the idea of being paid perhaps millions of dollars for the equivalent of a gold rush on their property. These are people who tend to readily believe the promises from the oil and gas companies - that the impact will be low, that their water will be safe, and that they will make a lot of money - and have been signing away permission forms that allow the companies to come in and drill.
GROSS: But what is some of the damage that youve actually seen, going to communities where the drilling is already taking place?
Mr. LUSTGARTEN: Well, it's a broad range of impacts, and it starts with extensive truck traffic on the roads. Typically, either new roads are built into extremely rural or wilderness areas, or existing roads are expanded. Trucks represent constant traffic through some of these smaller towns. Then the well pads are cleared - five- to seven-acre pads - and then the drilling begins.
As the drilling happens, and through the hydraulic fracturing process, you have a 150-foot-tall derrick with bright spotlights on it, running large, diesel compressor engines that can be heard many, many miles away. It really turns a pastoral landscape into an industrial landscape. You may have to peek around a corner or through the woods to see, you know, a drilling derrick in rural Pennsylvania, but you will be able to hear it tens of miles away. And when there are dozens of them operating at the same time, it becomes sort of a background din that permeates the landscape and the community.
At the same time, there is consistently underground impacts to water supplies in these areas, and degradation of air quality as a result of both the emissions from the drilling equipment itself, from the gas compressor stations, and also from evaporants from the waste fluids and the hydraulic fracturing fluids.
GROSS: So what are some of your concerns about the larger impact that hydraulic fracturing is having?
Mr. LUSTGARTEN: Well, they're several-fold, but one of the most interesting things that I found is that there is essentially no scientific understanding of what happens to both the fractured rock and the chemicals that are left underground after the rock is fractured. And look at a water-constrained future, a future in which reservoirs and underground aquifers are becoming increasingly valuable, not just in the west but in the east. And here, we have a process where extraordinarily large volumes of chemically contaminated water, water that nobody would represent as being safe to drink or even necessarily treatable to turn into drinking water, and we're injecting it without a lot of forethought, without a lot of study, and with very little understanding of where it goes and what its long-term ramifications might be.
When you couple those concerns with hundreds of reports of well contamination across the United States, of both methane bubbling up into water and making tap water flammable and other levels of heavy metals and in some cases, chemicals in drinking water supplies, it points to questions that I think that regulators need to answer before the drilling is allowed to proceed at the pace at which it's been happening.
GROSS: Are regulators paying attention? Weve talked about how fracking is basically exempt from federal regulation now, you know, that the byproducts of it are exempt. Is there an attempt to change that?
Mr. LUSTGARTEN: There is. There was a bill introduced last year in Congress by three congressmen: congresswoman Diana DeGett from Colorado and Jared Polis of Colorado, and Maurice Hinchey of New York. It's called the FRAC Act, and it would restore the EPA's authority to regulate fracturing if it chose to do so. It wouldnt mandate the agency to regulate fracturing. And it would also require disclosure of the chemicals - the naming of chemicals that have hitherto been kept mostly secret.
GROSS: Right. And is considered a proprietary brew, so that they dont have to disclose what the chemicals are that they're using in the process.
Mr. LUSTGARTEN: Exactly.
GROSS: Abrahm Lustgarten, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. LUSTGARTEN: Thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: Abrahm Lustgarten reports on the oil and gas industries for ProPublica. You'll find links to all of the articles mentioned on today's show on our website, freshair.npr.org.