Fracking Chemicals In North Carolina Will Remain Secret, Industry-Funded Commission Rules

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What, exactly, are those chemicals being pumped underground during the fracking process?

In North Carolina, no one has to say.

On Tuesday, the 15-member state Mining and Energy Commission voted unanimously to pass a rule that would let fracking companies keep secret the makeup of the chemical mixture they pump underground to aid shale gas drilling. From the North Carolina News Observer:

The public safety standard will help the energy companies protect their secret sauce used in natural gas drilling, but critics said it would also keep residents in the dark about potent chemicals used near local farms and waterways. The rule passed unanimously after nearly three hours of intense debate Tuesday, and it follows more than a year of deliberations that had the commissioners tied up in knots. Commissioners sought to appease frightened residents, the energy industry and lawmakers eager to promote drilling for economic development.

Though the rule passed Tuesday is only a recommendation to the state legislature, which will reportedly have the final gavel over fracking disclosure standards in the future, it effectively protects energy exploration companies from disclosing their chemical concoctions until then, according to the News Observer.

It might seem strange that after 3 hours of what the News Observer called “intense debate” over the rule, it would pass without a single no vote. But taking a closer look at the committee’s leadership suggests why it was unanimous.

Jim Womack, an outspoken advocate of hydraulic fracturing, is chairman of the commission. Branded as a “tea party firebrand,” he has been accused of running an anonymous blog that serves as an “on-again, off-again haven for like-minded right-wingers to publish manifestos on local, state and national politics.”

Womack was appointed to the commission by North Carolina’s Senate President Pro-Tem Philip E. Berger, who received $46,700 in campaign contributions from fracking interests between 2009 and 2011.

The vice chair of the commission is Ray Covington, co-founder of North Carolina Oil and Gas, a landowner rights group with goals listed as “We want this land drilled; we want it done safely; and we want to provide effective representation throughout the entire process.” Covington was appointed to the commission by the state House Speaker Thom Tillis, who received $43,650 in campaign contributions from fracking interests between 2009 and 2011.

The person who is supposed to represent environmental conservation interests is George Howard, who was also appointed by Berger. Howard, however, is not part of any environmental or conservation grassroots group. He is the CEO of Restoration Systems, a company that restores wetlands that are damaged by human development.

In all, every one of the 15 members of the commission was appointed by either Bergen, Tillis, or North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory. McCrory is a longtime fracking enthusiast who recently tried to accelerate the state’s fracking timeline along with fracking advocates in the legislature.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a controversial method of extracting fossil fuels, generally favored because of its ability to increase the flow of oil or gas from a well. It is done by injecting high-pressure water and chemicals miles deep into the ground into subsurface rock, effectively “fracturing” the rock and allowing more paths for oil and gas to come through.

Disclosure of the chemicals within the high-pressure water stream, however, has been the subject of intense national debate between the fossil fuel industry and environmentalists. Fracking chemicals are currently exempt from federal water disclosure laws following passage of the 2005 Energy law, but many — including the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) — have argued that disclosure is needed in order for nearby residents to establish the quality of their water prior to fracking.

Chemical disclosure, the NRDC argues, is crucial in case any subsequent groundwater contamination from fracking occurs. First responders need the information to respond to accidents and emergencies, doctors need the information in case anyone is exposed to the chemicals, and scientists need the information in order to better understand of the cumulative environmental and health effects of fracking.

“Disclosure does not, by itself, make fracking safer,” the NRDC has said. “However, a comprehensive disclosure rule is one important component of a full suite of fracking safeguards and is essential to investigate contamination that occurs when proper safeguards are not in place or accidents occur.”

Meanwhile, the oil and natural gas lobby has historically worked hard to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from establishing nationwide standards for chemical disclosure, and some companies have insisted that the mixture counts as a trade secret.

Though at least nine states already have disclosure laws for fracking chemicals, only one — Colorado — requires the actual concentrations of the individual chemicals pumped into each well, according to a report in Inside Climate News.