Volume 8, Number 21 - August 14, 2008
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Gas Industry Chemicals Raise Concern
This April in Durango, Colo., a gas field worker named Clinton Marshall was rushed to Durango’s Mercy Regional Medical Center (MRMC) after he came into contact with a drilling chemical called frac’ing fluid. MRMC nurse Cathy Behr helped treat Marshall, whose clothes were soaked in a sweet-smelling fluid. A week later, Behr spent 30 hours in intensive care. She was diagnosed with chemical exposure.
When Behr’s doctor called Marshall’s drilling company, Weatherford, to obtain a list of chemicals in the frac’ing fluid, Weatherford refused to disclose the chemical contents,saying i twas a trade secret. Behr recovered but the incident has left questions about frac’ing.
Developed in 1946 by Amoco Energy in its Tulsa, Okla., laboratory,frac’ing or hydraulic fracturing is amethod of extracting natural gasf rom otherwise unproductive wells. During the mid 1990s, frac’ing became more widespread as oil and gas companies began drilling in areas that were previously un economical.
In 2008, gas-well frac treatments are ubiquitous. With out frac’ing, gas production in Wyoming would be nearly impossible.
Deep below the Green River Basin, billions of dollars of natural gas are trapped in “tight sands” that are the consistency of concrete. In order to liberate the lucrative gas from its nonporous matrix, drill operators loosen the material using hydraulic fracturing.
Drillers pump a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the well. This slurry is put under tremendous pressure until the tight material is loosened, which allows the gas to escape. In some cases a drill platform uses up to 500,000 gallons of frac’ fluid in 10 to 20 treatments per well.
While frac fluid is a majority sand and water, drill operators use a combination of potentially angerous additives to the mixture containing chemicals such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene and hydrocarbon methanol phosphate. After the well has been hydraulically fractured, the fluid is pumped to the surface and disposed of. During the process, gas-field workers are in close proximity to the drilling chemicals and on rare occasions, such as the case of Clinton Marshall, accidents happen.
That potentially puts Sublette County gasfield and health-care workers in close proximity to dangerous quantities of hazardous chemicals. “It’s a accident waiting to happen. It’s just a matter of time,” Linda Baker of the Upper Green River Valley Coalition said. “It is unfair for the people who take care of us when we help the most to expose them to unknown life-threatening components.”
Baker believes drill operators should be required to furnish a complete list of frac chemical ingredients to Sublette government officials and medical professionals.
“There are so many potential substances that Halliburton, Baker Hughes and Schlumberger can use,” she said. “They can choose from hundreds of chemicals.”
Drill operators do have plenty of choices. Frac fluids are specifically designed for a multitude of sand and rock varieties.
The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (EDE), a non profit organization that focuses on the health effects of synthetic chemicals, studied 215 drilling-fluid products and discovered 278 chemicals.
Of those chemicals, 19 percent have one to three possible health effects and 81 percent have between four and 14 possible health effects. But the list is incomplete. The EDE reported some products listed no ingredients and others were listed as “proprietary.”
Much at stake
Baker Hughes, the 2007 World Technological Award winner for best drilling fluids, offers product lines on its Web site of drilling and fracturing fluids that read off like a new line of automobiles.
Each product has a trade name and each trade name has its own unique combination of chemicals.
Those chemicals and their secret combinations are part of a veryc ompetitive and lucrative business.
“The companies who do hydraulic fracturing consider their formulas to be proprietary,”
EnCana Community Relations AdvisorR andy Teeuwen said. “The reason they do that is because their formula, and the way they do fracturing, enables them to be cost competitive and technologically more advanced than their competitors.”
The more technologically advanced a drill operation is, the more it secures future drilling contracts in a very profitable industry. With such large profits at stake, frac chemical combinations are kept tightly secret. But according to Teeuwen, entire products are not proprietary.
“The actual ingredients in terms of saying ‘this frac fluid has milk, sugar, eggs, and flour in it.’ That part of it is not proprietary,” he said. “What is proprietary is how many eggs, how much milk and how much flour, and the way it’s put together. That’s what they’re protecting and that’s what’s giving them the competitive advantage they are looking for.”
Surprisingly EnCana doesn’t drill. Instead, the company subcontracts out its drilling operations.
Regardless, Teeuwen said EnCana’s top priority is the safety of its workers and the community. It does this by supervising and managing all “drilling processes and functions.” Part of those functions is maintaining on site Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS). MSDS document information about a drill rig’s hazardous materials.
Those documents, required on-site at all times, contain the type and quantity of chemicals being used. The MSDS information is intended to help emergency workers in case of an accident but the sheets can be tedious( in the Cathy Behr case the MSDS was five pages long.) MSDS sheets are also not public record.
Some groups in Colorado are pushing forfull disclosure of hydraulic fracturing’s chemical ingredients.
Aug. 19-20, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission will decide on new regulations mandating disclosure of drilling fluids.
OnThursday, Aug.7 ,LaPlate County, Colo., Durango’s home county, decided on language requiring oil and gas companies to disclose their drilling chemicals to the county government before drilling. The county would be responsible for keeping the chemicals proprietary. The gas industry is threatening to leave Colorado if the regulations are passed. But similar rules haven’t pushed them out of Wyoming.
In February, the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (WOGCC) updated its rules to include a provision mandating drilling-chemical disclosure.
The new rules require drilling companies to notify the WOGCC of the tradename of chemicals used on a well-by-well basis. Essentially, the company must announce what it is putting into the ground.
“Our information is public information so anybody can get it,” Don Likwartz, State Oil and Gas supervisor, said. “If they know they are going to fracture-treat the well when they apply for the drilling permit then they usually put that in on the application – and they have to submit that to us in written form for approval before they(drill).”
Likwartz said his agency is on call 24 hours everyday. In an emergency, medical workers can call theWOGCC for information about what drilling product was being use donw hat well. But without the MSDS, the exact composition of the proprietary drilling fluids may not be surmised through a drilling fluid’s tradename. It’s a kin to discerning the ingredients of Coke just by its tradename. Without its exact ingredients, a consumer can’t tell if it contains sugar or high fructose corn syrup.
“I don’t know if they would give us the proprietary with that,” Likwartz said. “I don’t know if the tradename – if it would tell you what’s in it.”
Ultimately disclosure of the MSDS becomes the responsibility of the “Company Man” who could be a company employee or a subcontractor or the drilling contractor known as a “Tool Pusher.”
Company polices that dictate where and when a company representative is allowed to disclose proprietary information could mitigate some confusion but calls to Baker Hughes and Schlumberger were not returned, and a query submitted through Halliburton’s Web site was acknowledged but not answered. Luckily,reportsoffracfluidaccide ntsarerare.
In the Behr’s case, the nurse made her story public only after the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission refused to hear her testimony at a June public hearing. Anomaly or not,Behr’s story has raised eyebrows n many western energy-centric communities and it has prompted many to ask for the complicated answer to the simple question, “Whatisinthefrac’ingfluid
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