Assessing the Problem of Hydraulic Fracturing Fluids


Richard Hicks – Building Construction Technology

Brendan McGowan – Natural Resources Conservation

Kyle Karaska – Building Construction Technology


Assessing the Problem of Hydraulic Fracturing Fluids

Across the United States, millions of people have access to natural resources. One of the most important resources, clean drinking water, is usually held to strict regulations. In the small town of Dimock, Pennsylvania, this privilege was stripped from people due to the actions of Cabot Oil & Gas, one of the largest fracking companies in the U.S. CBS reported that the corporation collected natural gas via hydraulic fracturing and as a result chemicals seeped into their water, compromising all of the drinking water (2010). Hydraulic fracturing companies left families across the town with toxic, flammable water. This was only the beginning of their problems, as the gas company wasn’t held accountable due to a loophole, the same loophole that protected Chesapeake Energy in 2009 after fracking fluids infiltrated waters nearby killing 17 cows (CBS, 2010).

Hydraulic fracturing is a controversial issue when it comes to the debate between energy independence and its impacts on the environment. While domestic fracking helps to lower natural gas prices here in the United States, it also contaminates our ground and surface waters that supply us with clean drinking water. In 1974 the United States passed the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) in order to protect ground and surface waters used for human consumption. The SDWA required that regulations be put on underground injection control programs (SDWA, 2015). However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declined to enforce these regulations for hydraulic fracturing, saying that underground injection is not the primary function of hydraulic fracturing. In 1997 the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the fluids used in hydraulic fracturing did constitute underground injection, making the fluids used in the hydraulic fracturing process fall under the SDWA. The SDWA regulated hydraulic fracturing fluids until 2005. In 2005, the Energy Policy Act was signed into law by George W. Bush, which created a loophole that exempts companies drilling for natural gas from disclosing the chemicals used in their hydraulic fracturing fluids. This is known as the Halliburton Loophole because the Vice President Dick Cheney, who was influential in the passing the bill, was formerly the CEO of Halliburton, one of the world’s largest companies involved in the extraction of oil and natural gas (Gurule, 2013).

The problem with the Halliburton loophole lies in the fact that not all hydraulic fracturing sites take measures to assure that the chemicals contained in hydraulic fracturing fluids (HHFs) do not contaminate the environment. Multiple studies show that the known chemicals used in HHFs are highly toxic. Gross et al. (2013) claim that many of the chemicals cause a variety of health effects when people are exposed to them. These chemicals contaminate drinking water supplies around sites containing hydraulic fracturing wells. Because of the Halliburton loophole, many other unknown chemicals are also contaminating drinking water supplies. Since these chemicals are unknown, there is no way to determine their effects on the environment and the people exposed to them. Furthermore, there is no way for any company to say that these fluids are safe when the chemical compositions of the fluids are unknown and unstudied. Hydraulic fracturing fluids pose a threat to human health through ground and surface water contamination and the chemicals constituents need to be fully disclosed in order to identify and prohibit the extremely toxic chemicals used in the fluids.

According to a study published in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, thousands of chemicals are used in HHFs, of which 75% can affect respiratory and gastrointestinal systems, 50% can affect neurological, immune, cardiovascular and renal systems, 37% can affect the endocrine system, and 25% are known carcinogens (Burton et al., 2014, p.1684). These are just some of the potential effects of the chemicals that are being exposed drinking water supplies near hydraulic fracturing sites. Chemicals such as benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene (BTEX) are contaminating ground waters near sites where spills occurred and have been found to exceed the National Drinking Water maximum contaminant levels by up to 90% (Gross et al., 2013, p. 428). Wattenberg et al. (2015) identified the top 30 constituents, ranging from acute to chronic health risks, of HHFs by their use and presented the level of health hazard for each constituent. It is not far fetched to think that these chemicals in drinking water supplies could be the cause of serious medical issues and birth defects. Families living near fracking wells, or within the watershed of a well, could potentially be drinking contaminated water and not even know it. Wattenberg et al. (2015) claim that HHFs pose “[long]-term health risks to the general public who may be exposed to toxic constituents through air and water contamination, spills, and improper disposal of waste” (p. 612).  With the hydraulic fracturing industry expanding in the United States, it is important that we look past the short-term economical effects and take a look at the long term environmental and health effects.

On June 4th, 2015 the EPA released a 998-page peer-reviewed external review of their long-term study on the effects of hydraulic fracking on groundwater. In the study, the EPA (2015) explained that contamination of drinking water wells is happening due to fracking. In addition, the EPA (2015) stated that “hydraulic fracturing fluids have also been directly injected into drinking water resources” (p. 547). Proponents of fracking claim that fracking companies reuse most of their wastewater for later use instead of using underground injection control (UIC) for HFFs. This method takes fracking wastewater and directly injects it into groundwater resources. However, the EPA found that for Texas’s Barnett Shale, fracking companies spent about 95% of their water budget on UIC methods and only 5% on wastewater reuse (EPA, 2015, p. 34). Furthermore, this method is used for 98% of all fracking wastewater disposal, causing billions of gallons of water potentially containing toxic HFFs to be injected into the soil (EPA, 2015, p. 46). One of the problems in the past was that there was no definitive answer from the EPA about whether fracking could pose health threats (CBS, 2010). This study could be an important key to setting regulations in place.

Hydraulic fracturing fluids are also contaminating surface waters here in the United States. Spills and produced waters are the main causes of surface water contamination. Produced waters are a byproduct of HFF injections. According to Burton et al. (2015), evaluations of fracturing operations in central Arkansas found that surface water quality violations at site operations were caused by erosion (22%), illegal discharges (10%), and spills (10%) (p. 1681). The produced waters can be reused or sent to an industrial wastewater treatment facilities. Facilities in the Marcellus region were accepting flow back water and were unable to remove the high concentration of dissolved salts leading to the discharge of high-salinity treated effluent into receiving waterways (Burton et al., 2015). This discharge leads to higher concentrations of bromide in drinking water intake streams. Burton et al. (2015) found, “the formation of brominated disinfection byproducts in treated drinking water and concentration of radium in river sediments near wastewater treatment outflows (p. 1684). EPA (2015) also found that the treatment facilities used to clean the water for reuse do not “effectively reduce TDS [or total dissolved solids] concentrations” (p. 47). According to Thiel and Lienhard, total dissolved solids are dangerous for water contamination because if they seep into groundwater, they can make water “hypersaline, as it may have up to nine times the salinity of seawater” (Thiel & Lienhard, 2014, p. 55). Additionally, this hypersaline wastewater cannot easily be refined, as only 40-50% of the wastewater can be recovered at best (Thiel & Lienhard, 2014, p. 66).

Companies with close ties to political parties, such as Halliburton, argue that the investigation of their methods of hydraulic fracturing could drastically hurt the economy. They claim that the domestic gas production could drop resulting in billions of dollars in lost revenue and gas prices to rise (“Halliburton,” 2009). Other companies complain that disclosing information such as their fracturing methods and proprietary mixtures used in the process could reveal valuable information to their competitors. They feel threatened that their competitors could gain an advantage by learning about their own fracturing process (“Halliburton,” 2009). Both of these arguments come from a strictly financial perspective, skating around the fact that there are other impacts such as health and environmental concerns. The companies claim that the process is safe, which raises the question, why would they fear being regulated? Studies mentioned in prior paragraphs have shown that the chemicals used in HFFs are not safe and are harmful to people and the environment. By not disclosing the chemicals used in their hydraulic fracturing process these companies are contaminating the drinking water of innocent civilians and valued ecosystems. Halliburton saying that they will lose some profit margins if they disclose their chemicals used, is not a legitimate excuse for not disclosing unknown and potentially harmful chemicals.

There is a legislative proposal in the United States Congress called The Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act that aims to close the Halliburton Loophole. The FRAC Act will define hydraulic fracturing as a federally regulated activity under the Safe Drinking Water Act (FRAC Act, 2015). This means that hydraulic fracturing companies would need to disclose the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluids. Passing the FRAC ACT would require fracking companies to disclose all the chemicals in hydraulic fracturing fluids in order to identify and eliminate the most toxic chemical constituents. Out of the 33 states where hydraulic fracturing occurs, the only state that requires full public disclosure is Wyoming (“Disclosure”, 2011). This an important first step towards getting full disclosure on a federal level. Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee require some disclosure of the chemicals in HFFs, but it is not in great detail and not available to the public (“Disclosure”, 2011). The other 29 states do not require disclosure of chemicals at all on the state level. If more states were to require full disclosure like Wyoming, there would be a better chance that the FRAC act could be passed, making full disclosure of the chemicals used in HFFs mandatory for every state. As the general public starts to acknowledge the health and environmental effects of the toxic chemicals in HFFs, they will push towards full disclosure on the state level, and eventually on the federal level through the FRAC act.

By implementing the FRAC Act we can safely regulate the chemicals used by hydraulic fracturing companies. The chemicals can then be studied and the most toxic of them can be eliminated from HFFs. The elimination of the most toxic chemical in HFFs will greatly reduce the health and environmental impacts of fracking.


Burton, G. A., Basu, N., Ellis, B. R., Kapo, K. E., Entrekin, S., & Nadelhoffer, K. (2014). Hydraulic fracking: Are surface water impacts an ecological concern? Environmental Toxicology & Chemistry, 33(​ 8), 1679-1689. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier.

CBS. (2010, November 14). 60 Minutes, 11.14.10. Retrieved from CBS

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Wattenberg, E. V., Bielicki, J. M., Suchomel, A. E., Sweet, J. T., Vold, E. M., & Ramachandran, G. (2015). Assessment of the acute and chronic health hazards of hydraulic fracturing fluids.​ Journal of Occupational & Environmental Hygiene, 12(​ 9), 611-624. doi: 10.1080/15459624.2015.1029612