by Chet Hardin
There's an estimated 110 years worth of natural gas trapped under our feet. It makes sense that we want to get to it. Through hydraulic fracturing — a process of blasting water and other stuff into stubborn geological formations — and horizontal drilling, crafty energy companies are able to trick out all that trapped power.
So, yeah, good for science.
The problem is that it isn't just water that is being slammed into our buried shale formations. It's also benzene, toluene, xylene, ethylbenzene, methanol, 2-butoxyethanol and lead, to name a few. (Oh, and instant coffee grounds, and walnut hulls.) Benzene, toluene, xylene and ethylbenzene are BTEX compounds, and while each varies in its toxicity, each is dangerous. Elevated exposure to benzene can lead to cancer. Toluene and xylene can cause damage to the nervous system. Ethylbenzene can damage the kidneys and liver.
The ill effects of lead have been known for years and years: "Infants and children who drink water containing lead in excess of the action level could experience delays in their physical or mental development. Children could show slight deficits in attention span and learning abilities. Adults who drink this water over many years could develop kidney problems or high blood pressure."
High levels of methanol can cause blindness. 2-Butoxyethanol irritates mucous membrane, and can cause hypertension and coma.
Coffee grounds can just lead to some jacked-up squirrels.
Thanks to a Congressional report that was prepared for Rep. Henry Waxman, Rep. Edward J. Markey, and Colorado's Rep. Diana DeGette, we now know that between 2005 and 2009, 14 companies have pumped 780 million gallons of hydrofraking products (this doesn't include the water base) into the earth. And many of these 2,500 individual products have contained the above chemicals, as well as many others that "could pose a severe risk to human health or the environment."
The report was a result of an investigation initiated by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce last year (when the Democrats were still in charge). It was based on the voluntary reporting by the energy companies. It found that 1.5 million gallons of 2-Butoxyethanol was pumped into Colorado between 2005-2009. Ditto carcinogens. And 375,000 gallons of chemicals regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, which includes BTEX compounds, were used in Colorado in the same time frame.
It's a cheery read. And as thorough as it is, it still was reliant on the companies' self-disclosure:
In many instances, the oil and gas service companies were unable to provide the Committee with a complete chemical makeup of the hydraulic fracturing fluids they used. Between 2005 and 2009, the companies used 94 million gallons of 279 products that contained at least one chemical or component that the manufacturers deemed proprietary or a trade secret.
Committee staff requested that these companies disclose this proprietary information. Although some companies did provide information about these proprietary fluids, in most cases the companies stated that they did not have access to proprietary information about products they purchased “off the shelf” from chemical suppliers. In these cases, the companies are injecting fluids containing chemicals that they themselves cannot identify.