Texas Frack Law’s Loopholes
By Randy Lee Loftis
The Dallas City Council is considering an ordinance regulating gas drilling and fracking but is far from making a decision. This series of stories examines the claims made by proponents and critics of drilling in Dallas.
For anyone who might have hoped last week’s Dallas City Council briefing on natural-gas drilling would answer all the questions: Keep hoping.
After four hours of argument and rebuttal, the two biggest questions remained. Is drilling safe? An industry spokesman and allies on the council maintain it is. Or is it a gamble with public health? Advocates of tighter rules say the risk is too great.
As with most complex issues, there’s not just one answer. When the council votes on a new gas-drilling ordinance, it will have to slash through a thicket of conflicting claims.
Many of the two sides’ assertions are unprovable predictions. But some are arguments over what’s happened in North Texas’ Barnett Shale. Those can be tested.
For example, what must gas companies disclose about the chemicals they or their contractors inject into the earth to produce the gas, and what are those chemicals?
Dallas attorney Terry Welch, speaking for those who want the toughest possible rules on drilling, told the council the chemicals are largely undisclosed and some are toxic. Critics of drilling also frequently call chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing dangerous.
Ed Ireland, director of the industry-backed Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, told council members Texas law requires disclosure in nearly all cases. The industry also maintains that most chemicals are safe and pose no health or environmental threat.
The Dallas Morning News found evidence to support parts of both claims. Some chemicals used in fracking are still masked by claims of trade secrets. Some, but not all, are highly toxic.
But most will be disclosed under a law the Texas Legislature passed last year. And the risk from the chemicals is most closely linked to surface spills, not their injection into the ground.
In particular, The News found the Legislature waited until there was little need for the disclosure law and then inserted loopholes that leave the law’s benefits in doubt.
The conclusion: Texas’ new law increases disclosure and provides the industry — which backed it — cover from accusations of secrecy.
But it won’t supply all the information Dallas might want to know about what could be injected far below the city.
What is fracking?
Hydraulic fracturing — fracking — is by far the most controversial practice in the United States’ recent fling with natural-gas drilling.
Drillers have shoved fluids and other materials into the ground to force out more oil and gas from old wells for a century, but the shale-gas boom has carried the practice from the traditional plains and prairies into the suburbs.
Shale gas is locked into layers of shale far below the surface. Drill a conventional well into the shale and you might get salt water and a smattering of gas, not nearly enough to pay the production bills.
But pump nearly 4 million gallons of chemically treated water and 4 million pounds of sand into the hole at extreme pressure and the rock breaks up, or fractures, and the gas escapes.
It’s the ability to do that, plus improved technology that lets a company drill in one spot and run pipes deep underground to capture gas a mile away, that has made shale gas the darling of domestic energy production.
Since North Texas’ Barnett Shale field — roughly from western Dallas County west for 100 miles — became a world leader about eight years ago, gas companies have drilled more than 18,000 wells, nearly all using fracking.
The Legislature addressed the disclosure of fracking chemicals only last year, after the boom of shale-gas drilling had dwindled. For the 18,000 wells already completed, no information will be available.
Under the law, companies must report fracking chemicals used on new wells — as disclosed to them by the fracking contractor — to a nonprofit website, fracfocus.org. Some well operators were already reporting voluntarily to the site, run by the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission.
Companies also must provide a list of all chemicals to the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas drilling.
The Legislature left exceptions. Incidental chemicals not used for a specific purpose need not be reported. Actual amounts used aren’t required. Trade secrets can still be protected.
Still, even limited disclosure is opening what had been a secret. For a reality check on what might happen in Dallas, consider one well drilled just a few miles away.
Chesapeake Energy received an amended drilling permit from the Texas Railroad Commission on April 1, 2011. The well would be designated Kelley A. Childs 3H.
Kelley A. Childs is the name of the mineral-rights lease Chesapeake obtained — 3 means it’s the third of several wells radiating from one drilling pad. H is for horizontal — a well that extends for some distance from the wellhead.
By Aug. 15, 2011, drilling of well 3H was complete. The pad is on the southwest corner of State Highway 161 and Mayfield Road in Grand Prairie, within Dallas County.
Chesapeake voluntarily reported its fracking fluids for this and other wells before the new state requirement kicked in. Using Chesapeake’s submission as a guide, the fracking of well 3H involved forcing as much as 38 million pounds of material into the earth to break up the shale.
Up to 84 percent of that was water — 3.8 million gallons weighing 32 million pounds. As much as 10 percent of the mass was sand, weighing about 3.9 million pounds. That’s a point that the gas industry frequently makes: The vast majority of the material used in fracking is water and sand.
Less frequently mentioned, however, is how big the chemical requirement for a well really is.
In the case of well 3H, the rest of what went underground was chemicals — acids, alcohols, petroleum-related mixtures and others.
Doing the math indicates that well 3H might have received as much as 55,000 pounds of chemicals. If the other wells in the Barnett Shale have required similar amounts, the chemical injection across the region may have approached 1 billion pounds.
The Chesapeake report did not specify the exact amount of each chemical or product that was used, only the maximum possible percentage. So the total chemical amount for the well could be an overestimate, but the numbers do show that the chemical use might be higher than the public imagined.
Hydrogen chloride, for example, might make up just 0.09 percent of the fracking fluid, but that might represent 35,480 pounds.
The rundown for well 3H includes seven products from Schlumberger Technology, a major oilfield services company, and two from Terra Services.
For most products, required material-safety data sheets disclose what the products contain. In some cases, though, the sheets suggest what the companies keep hidden.
A Schlumberger product called A264, a corrosion inhibitor, contains two chemicals the company disclosed and two it withheld.
A264 is marked as toxic, with potentially fatal consequences for inhaling or swallowing it or through skin contact. It also harms aquatic organisms and can cause long-term ecological harm.
Whether any such chemicals will be used in Dallas is anyone’s guess.
A city-appointed task force has spent eight months on a gas-drilling ordinance. The council now has had two briefings on the matter.
On Aug. 15, the City Council will meet behind closed doors with city attorneys to discuss legal ramifications of restricting or encouraging gas drilling in the city.
Beyond that, there’s no way to know what final version will come before the council. And there’s nothing to indicate when that might be.
IN THE KNOW: What’s below
Kelley A. Childs 3H, a well in Grand Prairie within Dallas County, might have had 55,000 pounds of chemicals used during fracking.
Here’s a rundown of the chemicals, maximum amounts that might have been used, and what’s known about their safety:
Hydrochloric acid: 35,480 pounds. Contents: Hydrogen chloride, water. Corrosive, irritating.
A264: A corrosion inhibitor. 891 pounds. Contents: Methanol; aliphatic acids (details proprietary); aliphatic alcohols, ethoxylated #1 (details proprietary); propargyl alcohol (2-propynol). Can kill people and aquatic life.
L058: An iron stabilizer. 208 pounds. Contents: Sodium erythorbate. Respiratory irritant.
B315: A friction reducer. 489 pounds. Contents: Distillates (petroleum), hydrotreated light; aliphatic alcohol glycol ether (details proprietary). Mild irritant.
J580: A water-gelling agent. 4,198 pounds. Contents: “Mixture of non-hazardous ingredients.” No further details. Respiratory tightness, sore throat.
J218: A breaker, which delays gel breakdown. 174 pounds. Contents: Diammonium peroxidisulphate. Harmful if swallowed.
J532: A borate crosslinker, which aids viscosity. 133 pounds. Contents: Aliphatic polyol (details proprietary); sodium tetraborate decahydrate. No hazards listed.
TS-30: A scale inhibitor; 3,447 pounds. Contents: Sodium polycarboxylate. No hazards listed.
Chlorine dioxide: An anti-bacterial agent. 91 pounds. Severe respiratory and eye irritant.
For each chemical, amount listed is based on extrapolations from maximums reported. Minimum amount used is not available, so some chemicals may be overestimated.
SOURCES: fracfocus.org; industry material safety data sheets; Occupational Safety and Health Administration; Dallas Morning News research.
FACT CHECK: Disclosure
Claim (by critics of drilling): Gas companies do not have to disclose the chemicals they inject into the ground for fracking a well.
Claim (by supporters of drilling): Texas law now requires disclosure of fracking chemicals shortly after a well is complete. The public will be able to go online and see exactly what’s being used.
Fact: Texas passed a law in 2011 requiring disclosure, but the Legislature left important loopholes. One, the law came into effect after tens of thousands of wells were fracked; the number being fracked now is small. The law is not retroactive. So the overwhelmingly majority of wells in North Texas will never have information disclosed. Two, the law does not require public notice of the use of fracking chemicals but only after the work is done. Three, the law allows drilling companies to keep some information secret as confidential business information.