EPA needs to improve oversight of fracing with diesel, OIG report says

The US Environmental Protection Agency needs to improve its oversight of hydraulic fracturing using diesel fuels and address any compliance issues, EPA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) said. The agency also needs to take further steps in its May 2014 plan to determine whether a federal requirement to publicly disclose frac fluid ingredients is necessary, OIG said in a July 16 report.

“Evidence shows that companies have used diesel fuels during hydraulic fracturing without EPA or state permits,” said Khadija Walker, a project manager in OIG’s Program Evaluation Office. “EPA also has not determined whether states and tribes are following the agency’s memorandum for issuing permits when hydraulic fracturing uses diesel fuels.”

The report recommended that EPA determine whether states and Indian tribes issue diesel fuel permits for fracing as required; address compliance issues related to issuing permits for fracing with diesel; and establish a plan with milestone dates to determine if a federal rule requiring disclosure of chemicals and mixtures used in fracing is required, she said in a podcast accompanying the report.

“In light of the surge in [fracing], the agency has designated a headquarters official to share information and coordinate initiatives among various EPA program offices involved with energy extraction activities, including [fracing],” Walker said. “In addition, EPA has personnel who coordinate oversight of energy extraction activities on a regional level.”

Outdated information

Oil and gas associations and state regulators were still evaluating the report and its recommendations on July 20. A spokeswoman at the Interstate Oil & Gas Compact Commission in Oklahoma City told OGJ that its members were studying the report, and planned to have a conference call regarding its contents on July 21.

The report relies too heavily on outdated information and materials from discredited anti-fracing activists, Independent Petroleum Association of America Executive Vice-Pres. Lee O. Fuller suggested. “First, it’s important to recognize that the use of diesel fuel in fracturing has never resulted in drinking water contamination,” he said. “Second, many of the supporting documents that the OIG uses are either flawed or dated before EPA identified the chemicals it considered to be diesel fuel.”

The report noted disparities in estimates of wells fraced with diesel from 2011 to 2014. It cited an August 2014 Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) investigation that found at least 33 companies had drilled 351 wells in 12 states with prohibited diesel fuels without required permits.

Energy in Depth, which IPAA launched in 2009 as a public outreached campaign on issues arising from unconventional production, responded that EIP’s report did not differentiate between fraced wells using diesel and those using kerosene, which EPA did not clarify as a diesel fuel until it issued a February 2014 memorandum.

Fuller said that data entry issues, including misidentifying additives that in fact did not contain diesel fuel, are the principal reasons for a perception that diesel fuel has been used in fracing since Congress added the diesel fuel provision to the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). These have been addressed in newer versions of FracFocus, the online voluntary fracing ingredient disclosure web site jointly operated by the Groundwater Protection Council and IOGCC, he added.

“Since EPA defined diesel fuels for the purpose of the [SDWA], industry has been aggressively revising its fracturing formulas to exclude these chemicals,” Fuller said. “It is unfortunate that the EPA OIG report replays many of these outdated arguments at essentially the same time that EPA has released the draft results of its multiyear fracturing study concluding that there are no widespread systemic fracturing problems as currently regulated under state agency management.”

When the US Bureau of Land Management issued its final rule governing fracing on public and tribal lands this past spring (OGJ Online, Mar. 20, 2015), it required companies to publicly disclose chemicals used to BLM through FracFocus within 30 days of completing fracing operations. Exceptions for proprietary information would be allowed as long as BLM had access to the information in an emergency, the final rule said.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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