Use of Chemicals for Fracking May Be Illegal Under REACH, European Commission Says

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BRUSSELS—Oversights in REACH registration dossiers could mean the use of hazardous chemicals in hydraulic fracturing to extract shale gas is technically illegal in the European Union, the European Commission told BNA Sept. 27.

Commission environment spokesman Joe Hennon said the Helsinki-based European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) had examined REACH registration dossiers “for a selected number of chemical substances having a high probability to be used in shale gas operations,” and had found no instances of chemical safety assessments mentioning exposure scenarios related to hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.

This could mean that “registration dossiers submitted by the industry to ECHA are incomplete, and do not allow shale gas operators to take appropriate risk-management measures when using the substance specifically in shale gas operations,” Hennon said.

Consequently, until they notify ECHA and provide relevant usage information, including a chemical safety report, “shale gas operators are not allowed to use a substance which does not fulfil REACH requirements,” Hennon said.

Fracking involves the injection of water, sand, and other chemical additives into rock layers to allow gas to flow into a well.

Use Allowed Only for Registered Purposes

The potential problem for shale gas operators was first raised at a conference on REACH in Brussels Sept. 23 by the most senior official in the Commission's environment department, Karl Falkenberg.

“None of the substances used [for fracking] have been registered for this process in Helsinki so far,” Falkenberg said.

“You can only use substances for registered purposes. We need to know what substances are used to get to this resource [shale gas],” he added.

Hennon said that ECHA's examination of dossiers for fracking use scenarios had covered ethylene glycol, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, glutaraldehyde, hydrochloric acid, hydrotreated light petroleum distillates, isopropyl alcohol, methanol, polyacrylamide, and sodium hydroxide.

Under REACH (Regulation No. 1907/2006 on the registration, evaluation, and authorization of chemicals), a fracking operator would be classified as a “downstream user” of chemicals, triggering a number of obligations.

As well as the obligation to demonstrate safe use of substances by providing exposure scenarios and chemical safety reports, downstream users face information requirements, including a duty to notify ECHA if a substance is considered to be of “very high concern” under REACH, meaning it is included in a candidate list for possible bans.

Acrylamide, used to form polyacrylamide, is on the REACH candidate list because of its carcinogenic and mutagenic properties.

Industry Unaware of Problem

Hennon said there could be other explanations for the missing fracking exposure scenarios.

It was possible that “the substances for which registration dossiers have been reviewed by ECHA are not the ones currently used or expected to be used by operators for shale gas operations in Europe,” he said.

It was also possible that some substances did not meet the criteria to be registered by the first REACH registration deadline of Nov. 30, 2010, which applied to substances manufactured in, or imported into, the European Union in annual volumes of 1,000 metric tons or more, and to some classes of hazardous chemicals at lower volumes.

However, a spokesman for Cuadrilla Resources, which is carrying out exploratory shale gas operations in the United Kingdom, told BNA that it used hydrochloric acid and polyacrylamide—two of the substances examined by ECHA—for fracking.

“We'd heard nothing at all about this,” and “we're looking into it,” the Cuadrilla spokesman said.

EU Countries Split Over Fracking

Fracking is controversial in the European Union. France banned the process in June because of fears of potential environmental damage (34 INER 643, 7/6/11).

However, Poland, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU Council, is a strong advocate of shale gas extraction, seeing it as a way to reduce dependence on coal while remaining independent of Russian gas imports.

Poland is believed to have Europe's largest shale gas reserves (33 INER 556, 6/9/10).

Renata Bancarzewska, spokeswoman for the Polish Representation to the European Union, said “it is obvious we have to respect [EU] rules,” but would not comment further on REACH and shale gas.

There is no shale gas production in the European Union at present, but production could begin by 2015 in some countries, according to the European Commission.

“It is up to member state enforcement authorities to ensure that shale gas exploration and exploitation projects fully comply with REACH requirements, and to subject operators to penalties in case of noncompliance,” Hennon said.