Fracking Protest July 2014
Protesters take part in an anti-fracking rally in Washington D.C. Environmentalists are worried that fracking causes water contamination, though industry and some regulators say there's not enough evidence. Reuters

U.S. fracking firms have illegally injected diesel fuel into hundreds of oil and gas wells in a dozen states, a new analysis asserts. The study taps into a long-simmering debate among industry, regulators and environmental groups over whether drilling companies should disclose all the chemicals they pump into the ground – or whether they can keep some secret.

At least 33 companies used diesel to drill 351 wells from 2010 to July 2014, according to the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington, D.C.-based organization. While drillers can blast a mix of chemicals, water and sand into shale formations, they have to get federal permits to include diesel in the mix. None of the companies listed had applied for or received a diesel permit, according to EIP conversations with state regulators.

“Companies that injected diesel without permits should be fined for ignoring the laws,” Mary Greene, a senior managing attorney with EIP and the report’s author, said on a Wednesday press call. “This is first and foremost a public health issue. Injecting diesel into fracked wells threatens drinking water and human health.”

Greene, a former enforcement attorney at the federal Environmental Protection Agency, said she hadn’t received an initial response from the EPA or state officials about how they might use the report’s findings.

Diesel contains toxic compounds – such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene – that are known to cause cancer and neurological effects, even in very small doses. In fracking, diesel helps to keep shale formations from absorbing all the fluids used to crack open the rock or clay. But it’s highly mobile in water, making it a particularly potent groundwater contaminant.

The EPA oversees fracking when diesel is included, but for the most part, the fracking process is largely exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act’s requirements, thanks to a 2005 energy law. In May 2012, the agency proposed new guidance to remind companies of its authority over diesel and emphasize the permitting process. Last February, the EPA adopted the guidance, defining five substances as diesel that require a permit for use in fracking.

The oil and gas industry has pushed back against the ruling. It argues that fracking firms have already phased out diesel fuel from their drilling operations, so additional guidance just complicates business. “By perpetuating this regulatory process, the rule threatens to primacy of states’ underground injection control programs,” Lee Fuller of the Independent Petroleum Association of America told reporters at the time.

EIP found the wells on its list by scouring FracFocus, the online registry that drillers use to disclose fracking chemicals. The site is the only national database for such data and is managed by the Ground Water Protection Council, a nonprofit group of state water quality regulators, and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, a multi-state government agency. Once the environmental group found the sites, it had to buy identifying information from PIVOT Upstream Group, a Houston consulting firm.

At first, the organization listed 497 wells. Researchers hit a troubling snag, however, when they noticed that some of the well operators had removed “any and all indication of past diesel use” from their FracFocus disclosures, Greene said. The EIP initially planned to publish its findings June 19, but postponed the release until Wednesday so it could confirm that its results were still correct. The team later lowered its figure to 351 wells, which includes only the companies that still mentioned diesel injections between June 18 and Aug. 5, 2014.

Greene criticized the FracFocus system for allowing companies to quietly change their forms without explaining why or indicating that they had. “It is not acceptable that prior documentation of diesel use – self-disclosed information – can just disappear at a time when the EPA expresses renewed interest in enforcing the Safe Drinking Water program,” she said.

Mike Nickolaus of the Ground Water Protection Council said he had spoken with several companies that removed their diesel disclosures because, after conducting internal audits, they learned that diesel hadn’t been used after all.

He added that the FracFocus database – which holds 77,000 records – doesn’t indicate where documents have been altered because “the system just doesn’t have any place for something like that. It wasn’t designed with the idea that these records would be amended, because in a lot of cases these were regulatory records,” he told International Business Times. FracFocus also doesn’t have the capacity to investigate why a company changed its disclosure or if its data is accurate. “How would we know that’s the correct reason?”

Still, Nickolaus said that state regulators do receive notifications of amended records and can investigate the changes further if they want. “It’s not like it’s some deep, dark secret,” he said.

Greene and other environmental advocates, however, have criticized the industry-backed disclosure system for enabling secrecy and making it harder for the public and regulators to know what is being pumped into the ground and where. Nickolaus countered that FracFocus is “fairly transparent.”

Asked on the call if the Environmental Integrity Project might take legal action to force regulators to penalize diesel users, Greene said, “We’re considering what kind of citizen suit enforcement opportunities might exist. But our primary purpose is to make EPA and the states aware of this so that they can do their own compliance evaluations and take appropriate enforcement where indicated."