EPA subpoenas Halliburton, and why it's important

Back in September, EPA asked nine major hydraulic fracturing companies for information on the chemicals they use in the hydraulic fracturing process, their standard operating procedures at hydraulic fracturing sites, and the locations where fracturing has been conducted. This inquiry is part of the EPA’s investigation as the agency embarks on a comprehensive scientific study of the health and environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing. EPA committed to these companies that it would keep any proprietary information confidential.

Yesterday, EPA announced that eight of the nine companies agreed to voluntarily provide this information. The ninth—Halliburton--did not. (Keep in mind that the State of Wyoming is already requiring much of this information, and companies are complying there.)

As a result, EPA was forced to issue a subpoena to Halliburton so it can get the information needed to best protect human health and the environment.

Bravo EPA. We are proud of your environmental protection work on oil and gas this week. Thank you for leaving no stone unturned. Communities across the country want to better understand the risks to their families and farms. Hydraulic fracturing is implicated in cases of drinking water contamination in many states, and the best scientific information is needed to inform regulation of this practice.

Industry likes to say that hydraulic fracturing fluids consist of water, sand, and a trace amount of chemicals. I’ve blogged before about the chemicals, and how dangerous even a trace amount can be.

Today, I am going to spend a little time on the “sand.” The sand is used as a “proppant.” Once the hydraulic fracturing process creates new fractures underground, the sand’s function is to prop open the newly created fractures, so the oil or gas can flow out more freely. Industry would like you to think this is always the same kind of sand found in children’s sandboxes—and if it is safe for kids, it is safe for the rest of us.

It turns out that is not the case. Industry coats the sand to make it more effective in the hydraulic fracturing process--sometimes with very dangerous chemicals. For example, a coating is used in Halliburton’s Expedite® Service.

I am not a chemist or a professional patent-reader, but take, for example, Halliburton’s patent 7281580. In this patent, Halliburton mentions that one of the possible coatings for the sand is Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS). Or take Halliburton’s patent 7799744, where acrylonitrile and butadiene may be used in a coating.

Breathing high concentrations of acrylonitrile can cause nose and throat irritation, tightness in the chest, difficulty breathing, nausea, dizziness, weakness, headache, impaired judgment, and convulsions. Laboratory animals exposed to high concentrations of acrylonitrile in their air or drinking water have shown decreased fertility and birth defects. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, there is evidence that children are much more sensitive to acrylonitrile than adults. In a few cases, children have died following exposure to acrylonitrile vapors that caused only minor nose and throat irritation in adults.

Styrene is another of the chemicals that may be used to coat sand and make a polymer with acrylonitrile and butadiene. Styrene is rarely pure and generally contains other contaminants like toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes, all of which can be released into the environment when used in hydraulic fracturing.

Why am I focused on acrylonitrile and styrene?  Acrylonotrile and styrene have been found in the drinking water of citizens in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. These families with contaminated water have experienced human health impacts such as mouth sores, rashes and gastro-intestinal symptoms, as well as observed illnesses and deaths in their lambs, goats, and chickens.

Acrylonitrile and styrene have also been found in the air near oil and gas waste sites in New Mexico.

There is overwhelming evidence that makes clear it is critical to know exactly what is being used in the hydraulic fracturing process. The EPA is on the right track. We also need federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing to ensure that we are not relying solely on a patchwork of state regulations to protect human health and the environment.