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EPA subpoenas Halliburton over natural gas extraction method

November 9, 2010 |  1:17 pm

The Environmental Protection Agency issued a subpoena to compel Halliburton Co., the nation's largest oil field services company, to provide complete information on hydraulic fracturing, a controversial method the company pioneered to extract natural gas by injecting fluids into tight rock formations deep underground.

Halliburton remained the only company of nine that did not fully comply with a September request to provide the information voluntarily, according to EPA. The others either complied or "made unconditional commitments" to provide the information expeditiously, the EPA said.

"As a result, and as part of the agency’s effort to move forward as quickly as possible, today EPA issued a subpoena to the company requiring submission of the requested information that has yet to be provided," a statement from the agency said.

The EPA is under a congressional mandate to study potential adverse effects on drinking water and public health posed by hydraulic fracturing, which has been used extensively in the west and is part of plans to develop shale gas fields in Colorado, Pennsylvania, Texas, Louisiana and other states.

"The agency is under a tight deadline to provide initial results by the end of 2012 and the thoroughness of the study depends on timely access to detailed information about the methods used for fracturing," the EPA said.

The agency is seeking information on the chemical ingredients of fluids used in the process, as well as data on the effects of the chemicals on human health and the environment, standard operating procedures at hydraulic fracturing sites and the locations of sites where fracturing has been conducted.

A Halliburton spokeswoman said the company had already turned over 5,000 pages to the EPA and was "disappointed" with the EPA's decision, but was working with the agency to narrow the scope of its request:

"Halliburton has been working in good faith in an effort to respond to EPA's September 2010 request for information on our hydraulic fracturing operations over a five-year period. Because the agency's request was so broad, potentially requiring the company to prepare approximately 50,000 spreadsheets, we have met with the agency and had several additional discussions with EPA personnel in order to help narrow the focus of their unreasonable demands so that we could provide the agency what it needs to complete its study of hydraulic fracturing. We have turned over nearly 5,000 pages of documents as recently as last Friday, Nov. 5, 2010. We are disappointed by the EPA’s decision today.  Halliburton welcomes any federal court’s examination of our good faith efforts with the EPA to date."

Halliburton has attracted ample scrutiny over the years over hydraulic fracturing and contracts in Iraq, particularly during the tenure of Vice President Dick Cheney, who led the company from 1995 to 2000, and had a leading role in formulating the Bush administration's energy policy.

A Times investigation revealed that as vice president, Cheney's office helped back hydraulic fracturing as part of the Bush Administration's energy policy. An EPA report that concluded there was no danger to drinking water from hydraulic fracturing in coal-bed methane deposits in Wyoming was criticized as flawed by agency staffers, prompting an ongoing investigation by the EPA inspector general's office. The Bush administration worked to keep the practice from being regulated under the federal Clean Water Act.

From the Times article:

The ingredients used in fracturing vary with the job and the terrain. Most of them are as benign as food additives, but they can include toxic chemicals. In every case, the fluid includes water and a "propping agent" -- usually fine sand or ceramics mixed with a chemical gel -- that is pumped into the cracks to keep them open. A second chemical mixture liquefies the gel so that much of the injected water and chemicals can be removed before the gas is extracted.

But some of the fluid remains in the ground, a cause for concern in heavily drilled areas.Energy companies say there is not a single proven case that fracturing fluids caused contamination.

Greater attention has been paid recently to fracturing in 34 states after the airing by HBO of a documentary, "Gasland," chronicling allegations that the practice has contaminated drinking water in several areas.

About 28,000 wells are "fractured" every year. Backers of the method note that it can increase the yield from such wells by as much as a third.

President Obama has noted that development of the nation's "terrific natural gas resources" is among the elements that could become part of negotiations with a Republican-dominated House of Representatives over energy policy. The Marcellus shale formation that underlies New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Virginia has been referred to as "The Saudi Arabia of natural gas."

"We've got, I think, broad agreement that we've got terrific natural gas resources in this country," Obama said during a press conference after last week's Republican victories in the congressional elections. "Are we doing everything we can to develop those? ..."

--Geoff Mohan