Drillers reveal what's being pumped into gas and oil wells

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by BYRON HARRIS

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WFAA

Posted on May 29, 2011 at 10:11 PM

Updated Monday, May 30 at 5:44 PM

Is the gas well half empty... or half full?

Texas lawmakers have spent much of this session on legislation regarding disclosure of what goes into gas wells, how to track it, and how to make drillers reveal heretofore secret chemicals.

Different bills passed by the House and Senate must be reconciled.

Meanwhile, the industry has tried to head off criticism with self-disclosure.

"As a 20-year oil and gas regulator myself, I can tell you that regulation has improved by leaps and bounds over the last 20 or 30 years," boasted Mike Nickolaus of the Ground Water Protection Council.

But people who live near drilling rigs are increasingly concerned. As the founder of the Texas Oil and Gas Accountability Project, Sharon Wilson says no one is regulating the industry.

"The Texas Railroad Commission is an industry lapdog," she said. "Until they decide to be a citizen watchdog, then any restructuring of the Texas Railroad Commission is just re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic."

In the past decade, two advances have dramatically changed well technology: Horizontal drilling and hydro fracturing.

As a well is drilled through fresh water zones relatively near the surface, it is layered with pipe and cement to protect the fresh water and to provide stability for drilling.

Thousands of feet below, drillers can now change the direction of the well to horizontal, giving them better access to a gas deposit.

The well is perforated with small explosive shells.

Then, water and sand and small amounts of chemicals are pumped in under high pressure to crack pathways in the rock and hold them open.

This technique is known as hydro fracturing or "fracking."

As much as three-and-a-half Olympic swimming pools full of water are pumped into a typical Barnett Shale well. Neighbors are concerned about the chemicals that drillers are adding to the water they use.

"We really do need hydraulic fracturing to be regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act at the federal level," Wilson said.

A small amount — less than one-tenth of one percent of the additives — can be diesel fuel or kerosene, which contain benzene, a cancer-causing agent.

"Any number of petroleum distillates contain benzene," Wilson said. "Anything with petroleum can contain benzene."

Until last month, the chemical cocktail drillers use in fracking has not been public; they've said it's a trade secret.

But last month, they started to pull away the veil.

The oil and gas industry and the Department of Energy have started a Web site called FracFocus, where oil and gas companies voluntarily reveal the fracking chemicals pumped into the wells they've drilled this year.

Critics like Sharon Wilson are wary of anything voluntary or affiliated with the industry. "I'm skeptical of what they don't display... what they call 'trade secrets,'" she said.

Still, the 30 companies participating in FracFocus do show what's going into the well besides water and sand.

You can look up any well drilled this year by a participating company by producer, location, or well name — anywhere in the United States.

For example, additives reported to be in the fracking fluid at a well in Wise County include methanol and hydro-treated light distillates. An Internet search reveals "hydro-treated light distillates" are forms of kerosene.

Neighbors of a well are concerned about chemicals like this because eventually, frac fluid is pumped back out of a well. It's most often disposed of off-site in an injection well.

Critics say that process risks polluting air and water.

"Unless all drilling is regulated, you're always going to have bad actors," Wilson said.

The industry is trying to head off regulation with self-disclosure. Thirty companies are now revealing what's down the hole.

It's there for anyone to see.

E-mail bharris@wfaa.com

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