Well pumps pull natural gas from the ground just south of Durango off La Posta Road. In an unprecedented move, a Department of Energy advisory panel issued a laundry list of recommendations to the oil and gas industry this week. Among them was a call for full disclosure of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing./Photo by Steve Eginoire./Photo by Steve Eginoire

Cleaning up the gas patch

Department of Energy calls for fracking disclosure
 
by Will Sands

A handful of lucky souls have taken Shirley McNall’s “Toxic Tour of Hell.” The Four Corners woman has lived in the heart of oil and gas country in Aztec since 1976, and the tour begins just a few hundred feet from her home. The first stop is a gas well that has leaked, spilled and off-gassed ever since McNall and her husband moved onto the property on the edge of town limits.

“We’ve got 20 wells within three-quarters of a mile of our property,” McNall said. “Five of them have tested positive for hydrogen sulfide gas; most of them have leaked; and only a few have never had problems.”

When she says “problems,” McNall is referring to a variety of leaks, mishaps and spills quite literally in her back yard. She has seen tanks leaking gas from rusted-out holes and into the Aztec Irrigation Ditch. She’s seen split pit liners and “foul-smelling, dark-colored fluid” running off a well pad, down a gully and into an Aztec subdivision.

Last July, she awoke to a “nauseating, rotten egg odor” spilling into her bedroom window. The smell – which McNall believed to be a combination of hydrogen sulfide and benzene gas – continued to waft through her front door for six months, finally disappearing in late January of this year. In each of these cases, McNall has contacted industry representatives and gotten a predictable response.

“They’ll smile at you and tell you they’re out there working hard to do the right thing,” she said. “But my experience is that they’ve never done anything about the problems we’ve had until we scream and raise hell.”

And so, McNall started offering her “Toxic Tour of Hell,” a less-than-scenic trip around the Northern San Juan Basin to several of natural gas development’s less glamorous locations. Among other places, the tour stops off at McNall’s backyard gas wells, a pair of leaking gas wells located just 800 feet from Aztec Tigers Sports Complex, and Key Energy’s liquid disposal ponds located not far from several homes and businesses. Several years ago, filmmaker Josh Fox took the “Toxic Tour,” and footage of the experience found its way into his acclaimed documentary, “Gasland.” The picture has been credited with shining a light on the more unseemly sides of developing “America’s cleanest fuel” and spotlighting the practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Fracking is a widely used technique that allows access to hard-to-reach oil and gas deposits. The deposits are reached by pumping a chemical slurry underground at high pressure. While the exact recipe of the soup is unknown, frack fluid has been shown to contain hazardous chemicals and carcinogens like benzene and diesel fuel. And those substances have been discovered in the water table and well water in places around the Four Corners. However, regulation of fracking is strictly off-limits. Courtesy of a provision nicknamed the Halliburton Loophole, oil and gas development is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act, and companies can keep their proprietary frack recipes a secret.

Notably, nearly all of La Plata County’s thousands of wells have been fracked, and many more than once. McNall is also no stranger to fracking. Several months ago, she took part in a bird study north of Aztec. The group heard a loud boom and then watched as a large cloud formed over a drillsite. The cloud then drifted into an adjacent neighborhood where it prompted several concerned phone calls. Investigation revealed that liquid nitrogen had been injected into the ground at excess pressure, and the result was a blowback.

However, McNall’s “Toxic Tour” could be toned down in coming months and years. The powers that be are beginning to take a harder look at natural gas exploration and the controversial process of fracking.

Last Thursday, a Department of Energy advisory panel called for immediate action to offset many of the impacts of natural gas development. It issued a laundry list of recommendations to the industry, including a call for companies to disclose the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing.

The announcement was a result of the Obama administration’s call for a study of the health and environmental impacts of the nation’s gas fields.
 
After three months of study and public hearings, the Subcommittee on Natural Gas identified four areas of concern – possible pollution of drinking water from methane and chemicals; air pollution; disruption of communities; and cumulative impacts on communities and the environment. As a result, the subcommittee called for full disclosure of chemicals used in fracking as well as disclosure of wastewater and air emissions.

“I was surprised that they came out so strongly, given that the subcommittee is made up largely of pro-industry members,” said Gwen Lachelt, director of the Earthworks’ Oil and Gas Accountability Project. “I think industry is finally realizing that this issue is not going away and will have to be dealt with.”
The OGAP is a Durango-based organization with the mission of protecting citizens, wildlife and the environment from the impacts of oil and gas development. And the group has had significant concerns about fracking and other unregulated aspects of drilling since it was founded in 1999.
 
While Lachelt acknowledged that Thursday’s announcement is a strong step forward, she added that it is only a first step on the road to reforming the industry.

“Even though the DOE made strong recommendations, they haven’t gone far enough to close all of the loopholes,” she said. “The oil and gas industry is still exempted from seven of the U.S.’s major environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. The fact remains, we’ve still got a long way to go.”

Lachelt’s sentiment is shared by a variety of other sources. The State of Wyoming has announced that it is “generally supportive” of the DOE report and wants to see full disclosure of fracking fluids. The watchdog group, Earthjustice, has taken a similar view.

“The gas industry needs to change the way it’s been doing business,” said Trip Van Noppen, the group’s president. “This report by the Department of Energy subcommittee identifies a lengthy to-do list for the gas industry and shows just how far this industry has to go before its practices can be considered safe for public health and the environment.

Van Noppen concluded that the burden now shifts to the source of the controversy – the companies themselves.

“The DOE subcommittee has spoken out clearly on the shortcomings of this industry, joining a public outcry that has steadily been gaining volume,” he said. “The question remains, will the gas industry heed the call?”
 

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