As Wyoming goes, so goes the nation?

WY commission votes to disclose fracking chemicals

The Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission voted unanimously last week to approve new rules that require oil and gas companies in the state to disclose the chemicals they use in hydraulic fracturing of underground formations during drilling. 

The vote is particularly notable in a state where fossil fuels rule, and suggests that even in places where the oil and gas industry is viewed as an ally the catastrophic Gulf of Mexico oil spill may be convincing regulators that tougher oversight is needed.  CAP’s Tom Kenworthy has the story.

Few states are as deeply wedded to the oil, gas, and coal industries as Wyoming, where the first oil well was drilled in 1884″”six years before the Wyoming Territory became a state. Today, Wyoming ranks first in coal production among U.S. states, second in natural gas, and fourth in oil. Taxes and royalties from oil and gas pump nearly $3 billion a year into local and state government coffers, almost $5,500 for every man, woman, and child in the Cowboy State. Coal adds another $852 million to state and local government revenues.

Not surprisingly, all that economic clout also translates into political power. As a recent blog posting on the High Country News website noted, “Wyoming is run by the fossil fuel industry,” which is just what makes the commission’s vote so remarkable, if not unprecedented. In deference to the industry’s fears of revealing trade secrets, the commission voted to allow state regulators to not share that information with the public if energy companies can demonstrate it is proprietary.

Hydraulic fracturing””commonly called fracking””involves pumping a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals into well bores at high pressure to free gas from tight rock formations thousands of feet below ground. Fracking is now standard industry practice, but it has become increasingly controversial in recent years as drilling has spread to vast new shale gas discoveries and because of aboveground spills of chemicals and suspected contamination of underground drinking water supplies.

At the federal level, President Bush and Congress gave the oil and gas industry a free pass on hydraulic fracturing in 2005.  As part of a major energy bill, Congress exempted the process from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Legislation to remove that exemption and require oil and gas companies to disclose the chemicals used in fracking has been introduced in both the House and Senate but is stalled.

The draft American Power Act, written by Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT), would require disclosure of the fracking chemicals under the Community Right to Know Act. This provision could be included as part of a comprehensive clean energy bill that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) brings to the Senate floor for debate in July. The Environmental Protection Agency has already started a comprehensive study of the potential impacts and risks of fracking.

Though some large energy companies, including Exxon-Mobil and Chesapeake Energy, have publicly stated they favor disclosure of fracking chemicals, the industry has largely resisted efforts to be more transparent. In the run-up to the introduction of the American Power Act, oil giants BP, ConocoPhillips, and Shell Oil proposed adding language exempting fracking from federal oversight.

And prior to last week’s oil and gas commission vote, the Petroleum Association of Wyoming said disclosure would put companies at a competitive risk. “If I’m the guy that came up with the formula of Dr. Pepper, and I go out and tell the world, ‘Here’s the formula, go make it yourself,’ that’s not doing me a lot of favors in the business world,” association Vice President John Robitaille told E&E Publishing. The Community Right to Know program has established procedures for reporting on chemical components while protecting trade secrets.

But Wyoming has had experience with water contamination incidents potentially linked to gas drilling. Last year, the EPA found that contaminants in several drinking water wells near Pavillion, Wyoming included chemicals used in fracking.

Approval of the new rules puts Wyoming at the forefront of state efforts to require stronger oversight of fracking. In a comprehensive rewrite of its oil and gas rules last year, Colorado required energy companies to keep a record of the chemicals they used in wells and make those records available to state regulators in case of spills or incidents that could threaten public health and safety. But these records are not publicly available, and they should be.

The Wyoming commission’s approval of the new rules was applauded by environment and public health advocates. “This ruling was the right thing to do,” said Western Resource Advocates attorney Dan Heilig “One look at the Gulf of Mexico is proof that things don’t always turn out the way drilling companies expect.”

Energy companies are also feeling increased pressure from shareholders to endorse disclosure of chemicals used in fracking. Strong shareholder minorities of 42 percent and 36 percent have voted for resolutions that would have led Williams Companies, Inc. and Cabot Oil and Gas, respectively, to improve disclosure. Those votes show “that shareholders are deeply concerned about this issue and require more information on how companies are managing the risks associated with their fracturing operations,” said Larisa Ruoff, director of shareholder advocacy at Green Century Capital Management.

If the huge BP oil spill in the gulf has demonstrated anything, it has shown that the oil and gas industry has an obligation to be more transparent about how it conducts drilling operations. The Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has taken an important step in that direction, and the federal government should take note and follow Wyoming’s lead.

Reposted from the Center for American Progress, where Tom Kenworthy is a Senior Fellow.

8 Responses to As Wyoming goes, so goes the nation?

  1. BBHY says:

    Seems incredibly obvious that they would have to disclose what chemicals they are pumping into the ground. Why is this even a question?

  2. mike roddy says:

    This is really encouraging. The redeeming quality of people from the Rockies is that they have courage. It reminds me of the Salt Lake City Tribune’s editorial about the need to do something about climate change.

    The results of disclosure of fracting chemicals will be scary. Does this mean that the practice will be halted until sanity is restored? That’s the real question, as well as the one about whether gas can be released without the use of toxic chemicals.

  3. BillD says:

    When toxic chemicals show up in ground water and wells, it would be nice if they could be traced to their source. I would have expected that adding toxic or potentially toxic chemicals to the environment would require some kind of an environmental impact statement that lists the said chemicals and their approximate concentrations.

  4. prokaryote says:

    They’re Just Irrational?

    The most frightening part of Lustgarten’s interview has nothing to do with BP. It’s about the use of hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking,” apparently with no intended reference to Battlestar Galactica) to drill for natural gas. In fracking, a mixture of water and chemicals is injected underground under extremely high pressure to break up rock formations and release trapped natural gas bubbles. According to Lustgarten, there is no scientific understanding of what happens to those chemicals — many of which are toxic — and whether they end up in our drinking water. Yet the Energy Policy Act of 2005 forbids the EPA from regulating fracking under the Safe Drinking Water Act — by simply stipulating, without proof, that the chemicals are removed after being used, and therefore there is nothing to regulate.

    If this reminds you of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, it probably should. How could this happen? You should listen to the interview because I’m working from memory, but basically the EPA (this is under Bush and Cheney, remember) negotiated the deal with Halliburton and the other gas exploration companies. The EPA agreed to the stipulation, and hence the exemption for fracking, and in exchange the drillers agreed to stop using benzene (or diesel fuel, of which benzene is a component) as a fracking chemical. Years later, however, we now know that the exploration companies simply continued to use benzene as a fracking chemical.

  5. prokaryote says:

    Watch in fullscreen and 720 pixel


  6. Michael Tucker says:

    The oil and gas industry has been using a variety of chemicals to aid in oil and gas recovery. They can and do keep the chemicals secret because they claim they are “proprietary”. I suspect the real reason is the chemicals include compounds that are either highly caustic or carcinogenic. We have heard for years that chemicals are entering the ground water reservoirs and it was just a matter of time before public outrage forced a change.

  7. Anonymous says:

    HBO documentary exposes gas drilling hazards
    Film arrives at fraught time as public is focused on energy, how we get it

    GASLAND Movie TONIGHT premieres on HBO at 9PM.