As soon as the word fracing enters any discussion on coal-bed methane production, it is sure to trigger division among
the spectrum of stakeholders affected by the practice. If for no other reason, there seems to be no consensus on how to
spell the word, let alone how to regulate it.
Long used in the San Juan Basin to blast natural gas from its resting place deep beneath the surface, fracing - its
given name is hydraulic fracturing - is the practice of injecting a high-pressure mysterious mixture of sand, water and
chemicals into gas wells to break up the rock formation and release the gas within. It is a proven way of making wells
more productive. What is less known about the practice is how it affects drinking water supplies.
The gas industry has not exactly helped unravel this mystery. Claiming proprietary concerns about revealing just what
makes up the fracing fluids, industry has long insisted it has every right to keep the cocktail recipe secret. That has
raised concerns among citizens, lawmakers and advocacy groups who believe that public health should take precedence
over trade secrets any day of the week. That secrecy has also had very real ramifications for gas production workers -
and at least one emergency room nurse here in Durango - who have fallen ill after exposure to the fracing fluid.
Knowing just what it was that made them ill should be the priority.
The Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission now requires that companies keep a list with the commission of the
chemicals in the fluid, and that the components be shared with health workers should the need arise, provided they sign
a confidentiality agreement.
But a proposed federal measure would go further, regulating the substance under the Safe Drinking Water Act, and
requiring full disclosure. That bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, has caused no small amount of
political turmoil at the state and local level, but one good consequence came last month in the form of an
Environmental Protection Agency announcement that it plans to study just how fracing fluids affect drinking water
supplies. The news is welcome.
With industry staying tight-lipped on the topic, and a growing number of local governments, individuals, public health
experts and public interest groups expressing concern about the fluid and its effect on important resources,establishing a comprehensive body of data is an important step to take in determining how it should be controlled.
Concrete numbers based on thorough analysis can diffuse the rhetoric that has clouded the debate, and can give elected
officials the information they need to support proper regulation. As gas and oil operators work to find ways of making
each well as productive as possible, it is crucial that the effectiveness of the methods employed be balanced against
the health and resources of communities that support the industry.
As for settling the argument over whether fracing, fraccing or fracking is the appropriate spelling, more study is
Megan Graham is director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.