SALT LAKE CITY — A new report by an environmental watchdog organization highlights problems posed to drinking-water supplies by hydraulic fracturing, a technique used by the oil and gas industry to extract resources from deep below the earth's surface.
The report, titled "Drilling Around the Law," details a study that tracked six months' worth of chemical-disclosure records filed by several of the largest drilling corporations and includes information provided by some state and federal regulators, who concede they do not track fluids used in the process.
In fracturing, or "fracking," companies use a mixture of sand and water, as well as hydrocarbon solvents or petrochemicals, that are forcibly injected underground to break up rock formations, enabling greater capture of oil and gas.
Although it is a process that has been in place for more than 60 years and touted by the industry, critics say fracking has been linked to water contamination and property damage in Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wyoming.
Companies are supposed to obtain federal or state approval if they use diesel fuel in the process, but the report points out that other petrochemicals can be just as hazardous.
"When companies say they will not use diesel and then use other petroleum distillates, it's a bit like promising not to smoke Marlboros and then lighting up a Camel," said Dusty Horwitt, who works for the Environmental Working Group, the organization that put out the report.
Another conservation group, Red Rock Forests, pointed to Utah's Grand County, where the group says the fracking process has led to problems with the waste water, posing threats to human health and the environment.
"It is sad that the law gives the bottom line of these companies precedence over the protection of human health and the environment," said Harold Shepherd, the group's acting executive director.
The report calls on Congress to repeal the exemption that hydraulic fracturing has under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and asks the U.S. Department of Interior to require additional disclosure for wells drilled on federal lands. The report says companies should have to specifically identify what chemicals are being used because current descriptions are too vague.
The oil and gas industry counters that fears about contamination of drinking water are overblown, pointing to an EPA finding five years ago that said threats are minimal. The process is not used on rock formations that contain potable water, and extraction takes place many thousands of feet below the surface, the EPA added.
Utah is among more than two dozen member states of the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, which conducted a survey of gas and oil producing states, finding no evidence of groundwater contamination caused by hydraulic fracturing.
Last year, the Utah Legislature passed a resolution urging support for maintaining the exemption the process receives from the Safe Drinking Water Act.