A drilling rig in Dimock, Pa., where hydraulic fracturing is being used to tap natural gas reserves in the Marcellus shale formation. The Environmental Protection Agency sent letters to nine drilling companies on Thursday requesting detailed information about the chemicals contained in fluids used to crack open underground rock formations in the hunt for oil and natural gas.
Ralph Wilson/Associated Press
Hydraulic fracturing fluid being reclaimed at a natural gas well site near Burlington, Pa.
The move is part of the federal agency’s preparations for a long-term scientific study of the effects of the practice, known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” on drinking water and public health.
“Natural gas is an important part of our nation’s energy future, and it’s critical that the extraction of this valuable natural resource does not come at the expense of safe water and healthy communities,” the E.P.A. administrator, Lisa P. Jackson, said in a statement.
The agency asked the companies to respond to its request within seven days and to voluntarily provide the information within 30 days, according to a copy of the letter provided by the agency.
“To the extent that E.P.A. does not receive sufficient data in response to this letter,” the agency warned, “E.P.A. will be exploring legal alternatives to compel submission of the needed information.”
Hydraulic fracturing has been used for decades, and the industry maintains that it is safe. But in recent years, environmental groups and community activists, pointing to inconclusive but sometimes compelling anecdotes of possible water contamination, have complained that the drilling practice is far too loosely regulated. Those complaints increased after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
In a 2004 study, the E.P.A. concluded that hydraulic fracturing was essentially safe, but critics quickly condemned that analysis as sloppy and politically motivated. Congress used that study as partial justification the following year to exempt hydraulic fracturing from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
The current Congress passed legislation requiring the E.P.A. to re-examine the issue, and the agency is currently drafting a new study with an aim of publishing results by the end of 2012.
Most companies that make the fluids used in hydraulic fracturing have declined to disclose their formulas, arguing that the exact components are trade secrets.
Cathy G. Mann, a spokeswoman for Halliburton, one of those named in the E.P.A.’s announcement, said the company had not yet received the official request for data, but that it planned to fully cooperate with the agency.
“Halliburton supports and continues to comply with state, local and federal requirements promoting the forthright disclosure of the chemical additives that typically comprise less than one-half of 1 percent of our hydraulic fracturing solutions,” Ms. Mann said by e-mail. “We view this both as a means of enhancing public safety, and as a way to engage the public in a straightforward manner.”
In addition to Halliburton, the E.P.A. said that letters were sent to BJ Services, Complete Production Services, Key Energy Services, Patterson-UTI Energy, RPC Inc., Schlumberger, Superior Well Services and Weatherford International.
Stephanie Meadows, the upstream senior policy adviser for the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group representing oil and natural gas companies, took issue with the threat of legal action for noncompliance.
“I’m not sure how they would do that, or if they even have the authority to do that,” she said. “I’m little disappointed with the threats, because I thought we’d made it clear all along that we want to be helpful.”
The oil and natural gas industry has long maintained that hydraulic fracturing fluids are almost entirely a mixture of sand and water, with just trace amounts of chemical lubricants, thickeners and other compounds. None of the compounds come in contact with the water table, the industry says.
An E.P.A. spokeswoman said the agency would honor the companies’ requests for confidentiality about their exact formulas unless it determined that “disclosure of the information is necessary to protect health or the environment against an unreasonable risk of injury.”
The industry estimates that 90 percent of the more than 450,000 operating natural gas wells in the United States rely on hydraulic fracturing.
As part of its information gathering, the agency is also asking the companies to turn over any data they have on the potential health and environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing, information on the location of all sites where it has been practiced and the procedures for its use.
The E.P.A. has been conducting a series of public hearings on hydraulic fracturing, which has become a controversial topic in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and parts of western New York, where potentially huge reserves of previously unreachable natural gas have drilling companies angling for access.
Two days of hearings are scheduled to be held next week in Binghamton, N.Y. Organizers expect large crowds and major demonstrations both for and against natural gas development in the state.
The New York State Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill that would block natural gas exploration using hydraulic fracturing until early next year, to allow for closer examination of its effects. The State Assembly is expected to take up the matter later this month.
By TOM ZELLER Jr./NYT