Closing the Halliburton Loophole
Groups, scientists push for drilling disclosure

SideStory: The boom cycle: Study reveals abundant natural gas reserves

by Will Sands

Four Corners resident Shirley McNall is no stranger to oil and gas drilling. While McNall and her husband live inside Aztec city limits, their home is also in close proximity to 9 different natural gas wells.

In recent years, she’s seen gas leaking from production tanks; bubbling well heads submerged in deep water; and “foul-smelling, dark-colored fluid” running off a well pad, down a gully and puddling 500 feet from subdivision homes. The dirty list goes on to include things like split pit liners, noxious fumes and trucks deliberately dumping hundreds of gallons of hydraulic fracturing fluid into arroyos.

“We’ve got nine wells surrounding our property, and of the nine, only one’s not been a problem,” McNall said.

The situation is especially distressing for McNall because she knows that much more than natural gas is finding its way into the air, the ground, the watershed and the neighborhood. “All these episodes happened right here under our noses and inside Aztec city limits,” she said. “Can you imagine what’s happening on well pads and drilling operations out in the middle of nowhere?"

The unknowns of oil and gas drilling are presenting increasing concerns for conservationists and scientists throughout the region. Dr. Theo Colborn, president of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX), is among them and will be in Durango on Monday, June 29 to discuss the health effects of oil and gas drilling. 

The exchange, based in nearby Paonia, is the only organization of its kind and focuses on the human health and environmental problems resulting from ambient exposure to chemicals. With respect to oil and gas drilling, there is plenty of ambient exposure to go around. TEDX has compiled a list of 246 chemicals used in drilling in Colorado. Nearly half of these have been shown to harm the brain and nervous system. More than 70 percent have negative effects on the skin, eyes, sensory organs, liver function and the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. In addition, nearly half of the chemicals have been shown to have harmful ecological effects.

“All along we’ve been told that companies only use guar gum, soap and water for drilling,” Colborn said. “In fact, there are hundreds of chemicals being used for drilling, and many of them are not safe.

Most significant of all, Colborn noted, is that drilling companies are not regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency and are not required to disclose the chemical recipes in use. Courtesy of the so-called “Halliburton Loophole” – a term reflecting Vice-President Dick Cheney’s relationship with the oilfield services corporation – drilling is exempted from federal oversight. As a result, people and ecosystems in proximity to oil and gas wells face exposure to unknown and potentially harmful chemicals. TEDX has cataloged hundreds of chemicals but only as the result of overflights, fieldwork and on-the-ground studies. Plus, the recipe changes from operation to operation, and there is no way of knowing what is being injected or emitted in the back yard.

“There’s no way we can get the information on what’s actually being used,” Colborn said. “This is the problem, and for most people it comes as a big surprise.”

San Juan Citizens Alliance is another group that is also pushing for full disclosure. Josh Joswick, oil and gas coordinator for the local conservation group, said that it is time for industry to become a better neighbor in the Four Corners and beyond.

“The oil and gas industry continues to say that everything they use is benign,” Joswick said. “That’s fine if that’s really the case. If not, we need to be tracking these things and seeing what the actual impacts are. We need to know what’s going on out there.”

Members of the U.S. Legislature are currently working to close the “Halliburton Loophole” and shed a little light on drilling practices. New legislation named the FRAC Act – Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act – would repeal a Safe Drinking Water Act exemption provided for the oil and gas industry. It would also require oil and gas companies to disclose the chemicals they use in their hydraulic fracturing processes, where a stew of unknown chemicals is injected underground to break up oil and gas deposits. While Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., introduced the House bill as an attempt to level the playing field, Colborn and Joswick noted that such a law would only be the beginning.

“The theme is that we need full disclosure,” Colborn said. “The DeGette bill is a beginning. It gets a foot in the door. The problem is that it only goes after one thing – hydraulic fracturing.”

Joswick added that the FRAC Act faces a hard fight in Washington, D.C., before it becomes law. Similar efforts have been derailed by a powerful industry lobby and failed to pass legislative muster.

“The FRAC Act points us in the right direction,” he said. “But we still don’t know if the legislation will even survive. Right now, industry is portraying this as something that’s going to shut down drilling.”

Colborn concluded that TEDX’s work is not trying to shut down the oil and gas industry, merely bring drilling into balance. “Full disclosure will enable us to answer some difficult questions,” she said. “We’re not trying to get rid of drilling. We’re just trying to look at the big picture.” •



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