Audit, Compliance and Risk Blog

Hydraulic Fracturing: Can We 'Frack' Without Fouling the Environment?

Posted by Jon Elliott on Mon, Aug 13, 2012

Energy companies have used hydraulic fracturing—often referred to as ‘fracking’—since the 1940s in order to enhance recovery of oil and natural gas from low-permeability (“tight”) rock formations.
fracking illustrationFrackers pump high-pressure fluids into rock formations to create and expand cracks and create pathways for valuable hydrocarbons to flow out.  The stimulant fluids are usually water-based, with additional chemicals (acids, surfactants, biocides, etc.) to improve the effectiveness of the fracking process as well as solid ‘proppants’, which prop open the expanded openings (sand, etc.). 

Within the U.S., state regulation of extraction wells has sometimes included provisions to regulate fracking, and federal (GHG EPA,) and state environmental and worker safety regulations, have addressed the issue of exposures and wastes. These regulations have included a general prohibition against direct discharge of spent and recovered fluids into surface waters, which has led operators to reinject these fluids into subsurface formations, or ship them off for contamination management.

Why is fracking suddenly a big issue?

Recently, improving field techniques and rising energy prices are transforming this small but stable field into a potentially huge one – with accompanying attention and controversies.  On one side, some energy companies believe that the use of fracking and enhanced horizontal drilling techniques can allow extraction of trillions of cubic feet of gas and billions of barrels of oil.  On the other, environmental groups fear extensive air and water pollution from mismanaged liquids and gases, seismic disturbances from fractured geologic formations, onsite and offsite health risks from chemical contamination, and the increased GHG (greenhouse gas emissions) further contributes to climate change.

Between these two camps, other professionals from industry, environmental organizations and/or government agencies are working to clarify questions and narrow areas of concern.  For example, the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission have created the FracFocus website, where hundreds of drilling companies report the constituents contained in the stimulant fluids and proppants they use in fracking – an important counterpoint to a highly-publicized refusal by some drillers to disclose this information. As another example, in late 2011 the (multiparty) Shale Gas Production Subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board published a significant report to the Department of Energy recommending specific steps to include the management and reporting of fracking activities.

What regulatory developments are underway?

Without pre-judging the strategic decisions about energy production and the climate, regulators throughout the country are reviewing existing regulations and crafting new ones.  These regulatory efforts include the following:

• Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA; and states) – The injection of oil- and gas-related fluids into the subsurface are subject to Class 2 Underground Injection Control (UIC) permits.  In May 2012, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published “Draft Guidance: Permitting Guidance for Oil and Gas Hydraulic Fracturing Activities Using Diesel Fuels,” with public comments due by August 2012.

Clean Water Act (CWA; and states) – In March 2011, the EPA reiterated the longstanding ban on direct discharges of fluids to surface waters, but in November 2011 announced plans to proposed a rule that would cover wastewater discharges from shale gas extraction (which covers fracking) by 2014.

Clean Air Act (CAA; and states) -  In April 2012, the EPA signed “Oil and Natural Gas Sector: New Source Performance Standards and National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants Reviews,” which is currently under administrative review before publication in the Federal Register.  These include the first federal air standards for hydraulically fractured natural gas wells.  In addition, EPA’s Mandatory Greenhouse Gas Reporting Rules include “Petroleum and Natural Gas Systems,” which deals with the reporting of emissions associated with fracking.  EPA issued these provisions in November 2010, revised them twice, and also proposed further revisions in May 2012.

Occupational Safety and Health Act (federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and states) – OSHA and states regulate worker safety and information at drilling sites.  In June 2012, OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) issued a Hazard Alert bulletin related to respiratory risks of exposure to silica sand used in proppants.

• Bureau of Land Management (BLM) – In May 2012, BLM proposed rules regulating fracking on public and Indian lands, with comments due by September.  The proposed requirements are consistent with the American Petroleum Institute’s (API’s) 2001 Hydraulic Fracturing Operations guidelines.

• States – A handful of states have updated rules governing wells, and others continue to review their rules.  Revised rules generally follow the same API guidelines.  However, some states are instead considering complete bans on fracking. Vermont adopted the first such ban in May 2012.

With all these initiatives underway, it’s impossible to predict exactly what revised rules will govern fracking, or the extent to which governmental rules will even allow these activities to proceed.  But the general scope of applicable questions can be framed now to some extent, using the following checklist. 

Fracking Best Practices Checklist

  • Are all constituents in stimulant fluids and proppants identified (ideally, with Material Safety Data Sheets or newer Safety Data Sheets in hand)?

  • Are detailed work plans in place for all hydraulic fracturing projects? These should include:

-  Site information (surface and subsurface)

-  Proposed locations/depths and volumes of fluids to be injected

-  Operational details (equipment, pressures, monitoring, etc.) and associated procedures and worker and environmental safety measures

-  Methods and procedures for handling recovered fluids

-  Incident prevention and response protocols and equipment

-  Record keeping and reporting protocols

  • Are compliance measures in place, including required permits and regulatory compliance programs covering:

-  Resource development in general, and fracking operations in particular?

-   Wastewater management, including subsurface injection and any surface     management?

-   Air emissions?

-   Management of other wastes?

-   Worker protection and the right-to-know at worksites 

Fracking Best Practices Checklist 

About the Author     

Jon Elliott is President of Touchstone Environmental and has been a major contributor to STP’s product range for over 25 years. He was involved in developing 16 existing products, and writes quarterly updates includingU.S. Federal Mandatory Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reporting Audit Protocol

Mr. Elliott has a diverse educational background. In addition to his Juris Doctor (University of California, Boalt Hall School of Law, 1981), he holds a Master of Public Policy (Goldman School of Public Policy [GSPP], UC Berkeley, 1980), and a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (Princeton University, 1977). 

Mr. Elliott is active in professional and community organizations. In addition, he is a past chairman of the Board of Directors of the GSPP Alumni Association, and past member of the Executive Committee of the State Bar of California's Environmental Law Section (including past chair of its Legislative Committee).

You may contact Mr. Elliott directly at:

Tags: Health & Safety, Environmental risks, Environmental, EPA, fracking, hydraulic fracking