The Rural Blog: As states seek disclosure, drilling companies try more environmentally friendly fracking fluids

December 21, 2010 | EPA

Much of the controversy around hydraulic fracturing has centered on whether chemicals used in the process can contaminate drinking water supplies, "but despite an increase in the number of such reports nationally, environmentalists’ claims have been undermined by the fact that no scientific links have been established between fracturing — which involves blasting a solution of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to free natural gas — and reports of contaminated water," John Gramlich of Stateline writes in a good overview of the issue.

"One crucial question about fracturing, however, has always gone unanswered: Which chemicals, exactly, are drillers injecting into the earth as they search for natural gas? Government regulators themselves often don’t know the answer because the chemical formulas are protected as trade secrets by the companies doing the drilling," Gramlich writes. "Environmentalists say it is unfathomable that regulators don’t know the chemicals that are being fired into the earth, often near aquifers and private water supplies," so a few states are starting to require disclosure of the chemicals.

Meanwhile, some companies are touting "environmentally friendly formulas" to help alleviate those fears, Ryan Dezember of The Wall Street Journal reports. "Houston-based Halliburton—the No. 1 shale driller in the U.S.—is rolling out a fracking-fluid product called CleanStim that it says consists exclusively of compounds used in processed foods," Jim Brown, Halliburton’s Western Hemisphere president, recently told a group of investors "The same components to make this stuff are used to make ice cream and brew beer."

"Baker Hughes last week launched a line of products called BJ SmartCare that lets well owners customize their fluids based on factors such as toxicity and flammability," Dezember writes. "It declined to specify what most of the ingredients are, but they include fatty acids, essential oils and guar gum, which is found in toothpaste and ketchup." Flotek Industries Inc. says it has completed successful trials of biodegradable fracking chemicals, and oil and gas producer Devon Energy Corp. has already begun using some of the new formulas in its wells.

"The industry as a whole is going that way," Chip Minty, a spokesman for Devon, which has substantial shale-gas operations in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana, told Dezember. Halliburton noted CleanStim would add about 5 to 10 percent to its drilling costs, while Baker Hughes said its environmentally friendly formula would have a "minimal impact" on cost. "So far, Halliburton has tested CleanStim on 13 wells and has begun to offer it to customers," Dezember writes, noting an executive said "the cost of CleanStim will fall once it catches on and Halliburton can buy larger volumes of ingredients, such as maltodextrin, a sweetener and shower-gel component, and organic ester, which is found in liquid egg products and hairspray." (Read more) That sounds encouraging, but it should be noted that the effectiveness of chemicals might vary depending on the depth and nature of shale formations.

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