FRAC Act Attack: County Commissioners, Environmentalists Square Off Over New Oil & Gas Bill

By: Tim Ciesco Email
By: Tim Ciesco Email

A new bill making its way through Capitol Hill is drawing sharp criticism from the Mesa County Commissioners.

The Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals, or FRAC, Act would require oil and gas companies to report what kind of chemicals they use during a process called fracking, where a liquid mixture is shot into the ground at high pressures to help extract the gas below.

Under current federal law, the oil and gas industry is exempt from a Safe Drinking Water Act provision that requires such reporting. But now U.S. Representatives Diana DeGette and Jared Polis -- both from Colorado -- hope the FRAC Act they introduced will change that. They and supporters say it's a matter of public safety. But opponents, including the Mesa County Commissioners, say it's an unnecessary ploy for more government regulation.

Peggy Utesch lived in Garfield County for years, but says after a natural gas well leak contaminated her water, she was forced to move to the Grand Valley for health reasons. Now a member of environmental group Western Colorado Congress, she says it's important for regulations to be put into place to protect public safety.

"Certainly the chemicals that are used in fracking fluids could also impact not only individual water wells, but also aquifers," said Utesch.

That's why she's lobbying for the FRAC Act -- something the Mesa County Commissioners say makes no sense, especially when state and local laws require companies to report most of that information anyways in case of emergency situations.

"It's just control the locals versus local control," said Mesa County Commissioner Craig Meis, who has also worked as a consultant for the energy industry. "We're doing what is indicated by this bill on a local level as well as on a statewide level."

During their meeting Monday morning, the commissioners passed a resolution urging members of Congress to vote the FRAC Act down.

"There's no issues related to this that have ever been identified in the millions of frac jobs that have taken place," said Meis.

But supporters of the FRAC Act say that's only because current laws don't require reporting. A Panoia based scientific research group called TEDEX Inc. released a report in April, in which it states finding several cancer causing chemicals used in the drilling process. Kris Eisenla, a spokesperson for Rep. DeGette says there is also anecdotal evidence that frac fluids can be harmful, citing one case where a Durango nurse who treated a worker that had been sprayed with frac fluids got sic.

"Industry workers and emergency workers who have been exposed to fracking fluids have become very ill," said Utesch.

Opponents say other reports, including one released by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2004, show frac fluid is virtually harmless.

"Ninety-five percent of it is actually water and sand," said Meis. "The other five percent that isn't are household items."

Supporters don't buy it.

"If the chemicals they use are safe, why won't they disclose them?" said Utesch.

The commissioners say it's because each company creates its own unique frac fluid to gain a competitive edge in the market.

"Why does KFC not identify their special recipe?" said Meis. "It's a trade secret if you will."

Eisenla says supporters of the FRAC Act understand and respect that -- and that's why the bill only allows each company's formula to be released to authorities and medical personnel in emergency situations. He says the public will only have access to the names of chemical constituents, not the actual formulas themselves.

"We're not asking for public publication of this information," said Utesch.

But the commissioners say they will continue to fight against unnecessary regulation that will likely lead to higher prices for oil and natural gas.

"We've gotta start speaking out when there's bad legislation," said Meis.

Eisenla says at this point bills have been introduced in both the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives -- for now, the bill sponsors are still trying to gauge support before moving forward.

He adds that while Mesa County is opposing the bill, nine other Colorado governing bodies have passed resolutions supporting it, including the City of Durango, the City of Glenwood Springs, La Plata County, Pitkin County, and San Miguel County.

To view the Mesa County resolution opposing the FRAC Act, click on the link below.

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