The institutions of the European Union do not know what chemical substances are currently being utilized in the hydraulic fracturing process within EU territory. Worse still, they openly admit it is impossible to carry out an adequate risk characterization up to date, because exposure models for such a risk assessment do not exist yet. The plan announced by the Commission to repair this situation looks insufficient.
Analysis by Samuel Martín-Sosa, International Coordinator (Ecologistas en Acción)
Although shale gas is not yet commercially mined in the European Union (EU), the fracking process, which involves pumping a large quantity of pressurized water and chemicals into substrate rock, is already in use in exploratory wells in countries such as Poland, Romania or the United Kingdom. Which chemical substances exactly are getting pumped in? We don't know. Neither do we know what effect they have on the environment today, nor will have in the future.
The EU has one of the most advanced legal frameworks in the world when it comes to chemical substances. The REACH regulation mandates that all chemical substances on the market must be registered with the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). Each practical application must be registered separately. For example, if a gas company wants to use acrylamide for fracking, it makes no difference that the same acrylamide is already registered as an agglutinant for the paper industry; each new use requires a new entry in the register that describes the risks involved in the new process.
At the time of registration, it is first necessary to indicate the hazardous properties of a substance. Certain highly hazardous substances, whether because they are carcinogenic, mutagenic, toxic for reproduction, respiratory and skin sensitisers, etc., are included on a “special” list. The chemicals on this list are candidates for being taken off the market at some point and are subject to very strict authorization procedures, granted only in exceptional cases.
There is no way to know at present date whether any of these substances are being used in the EU for fracking –neither these chemical substances, nor any others, as ECHA admitted to Ecologistas en Acción a year ago. When asked for comment, the agency replied that its registration system does not have a dedicated category to identify chemicals used for “fracking”; it is reasonable to assume that if any substance has been registered for this application to date, this registration was under a more general rubric (such as “mining”). The Commission stated this week that "a new category "oil and gas field fracturing products" will be included in an update to the IUCLID tool", but this will only come in 2016 and after the ECHA runs a public consultation on the issue. Until then, we will probably remain ignorant regarding what is being used today.
Although, actually, there is something that we do know. Cuadrilla Resources, a company that uses hydrofracturing in its wells in the United Kingdom and that also holds licenses in Poland, in what was probably a slip-up, acknowledged to the press that it uses polyacrylamide. Polyacrylamide is formed from subunits of acrylamide, which appears in the special list we mentioned earlier because it can cause cancer and mutations. REACH implementation is happening rather slowly, and it is of course worrisome that in the meantime, thousands of chemical substances are being used in Europe while they wait their turn to have their environmental effects evaluated. What’s simply unbelievable is that chemicals widely recognized to be bona-fide bombs should still be unregulated and in use.
In addition, among those substances that have a long track record of use for hydraulic fracturing in other countries, like the US or Australia, we find such gems as ethoxylated 4-nonylphenol (a persistent, bioaccumulative and endocrine disruptor), formamide (teratogenic), naphthalene (carcinogenic)... with characteristics that would surely make them candidates for the special list in Europe. A 2011 scientific study compiled an exhaustive list of hundreds of substances used in hydraulic fracturing. Over 75% were found to affect the skin and eyes, 40-50% affected the nervous, immune, and cardiovascular systems, 37% the endocrine system, and 25% were carcinogens or mutagens.
Evaluating the risks
For those chemical substances which do not
exceed the toxicity thresholds for inclusion in such
priority list, the requirement is to characterize the risk by submitting
a Chemical Safety Report which compares the substance’s “exposure ”
(how a given substance would be distributed through water, soil and the atmosphere once released into the
environment) with its toxicity to living organisms. To assess the exposure of a
substance, it is necessary to have an “Exposure Scenario ”
specific to each use.
ECHA openly acknowledges that it is not possible to assess the risk of substances used in hydraulic fracturing because the exposure scenarios for this process have not yet been developed. And beyond, the Agency recognized earlier this week that the EU’s chemicals register will only allow this categorisation of fracking substances from 2016. The Commission is participating in OECD talks on developing such generic exposure scenarios for substances typically used for fracking. In the meanwhile, the absence of these scenarios is a quite serious issue, because without them it is impossible to evaluate the risk that these substances pose for human health and the environment.
The conclusion is terrifying: although we know that some chemicals are being used, we do not know which ones they are. We therefore cannot know whether any of these chemicals are highly hazardous. We also do not know, for the “other” chemicals, what effects they might have on health or the environment. These three facts, in and of themselves, should be enough to stop fracking in the EU today.
The European Commission already acknowledged some time ago that the use of chemicals in fracking within Europe is probably illegal. Three years later, things are moving way too slow as we have seen. The European Commission was preparing a directive to regulate fracking, but this was dropped due to pressure from those countries that want to develop hydraulic fracturing further. Instead, in January 2014, the EC produced some voluntary recommendations; among other measures they suggested the Member States “inform the public of the composition of the fluid used for hydraulic fracturing in each well.” Voluntarily inform the public of the composition of the fluid?! This seems to indicate that the European Commission and ECHA are abandoning efforts to identify this fluid’s composition in order to be able to make this information available to the public, as one might expect with a more stringent observance of the legal framework.
Taking Shots in the Dark
In response to present ECHA’s inability to say which chemicals are being used, the European Commission published a study a year ago, in which only 16 substances were chosen from among those commonly employed in other parts of the world, and which had been registered under REACH in Europe for uses that could mask fracking, such as mining or offshore drilling (in the case of shale gas reserves at sea). The aim of the study was to analyze how the chemicals had been registered. The chemicals considered included methanol, isopropanol, boric acid, sodium hydroxide, acrylamide, glutaraldehyde, various petroleum distillates, etc.... The results were discouraging. For the vast majority of these substances, the environmental Chemical Safety Report was not provided by the registrant, who claimed than no hazard associated with the substance has been identified. Nevertheless, when we look at Classification, Labelling and Packaging (CLP Regulation) for these substances we see that some type of hazard is attributed to nearly all of them. Effects range from corrosion, skin irritation, difficulty breathing, allergies… all the way to causing cancer or reproductive harm. Business has not told the truth. The request by the Commission to the ECHA to investigate whether a temporary solution is possible before 2016, for those substances already registered and in use, seems quite weak.
As citizens, we cannot stand by and do nothing. We need to demand that European authorities take off their blindfolds and protect us from chemical substances in an effective way. We want to know. And we want to know now, because fracking is already happening in European subsoil.
Samuel Martín-Sosa Rodríguez
Ecologistas en Acción