Energy companies have fought hard to keep secret of what exactly is in the fracking fluid they pump into the ground by the millions of gallons, and they’ve typically been successful.
But Houston driller Baker Hughes broke from that trend when it announced Thursday that it would disclose the entire chemical mixture it uses in its fracking fluid to the public. If the company follows through on that promise, it would be the first to disclose all the chemicals in its fracking fluid.
The company won’t be the first to give out some information on the mix of chemicals in fracking fluid, and it’s also not the only one moving toward more transparency in its fracking operations. In early April, after five years of pressure from shareholders, ExxonMobil agreed to disclose fracking’s risks to air, water, roads, and human health. The site FracFocus, a cooperative effort between water regulators and the fossil fuel industry, allows companies to voluntarily report the chemicals they use, but most have exemptions that allow them to keep one or more chemicals secret. California passed a law last year that requires companies to list chemicals used in fracking fluid, and a Wyoming law could result in companies being required to reveal the contents of fracking fluid, depending on the outcome of a court case.
Hiding health effects and chemical compositions has been a major part of fracking’s rise in the United States. A 2012 Pennsylvania law allows physicians to know which fracking chemicals may be harming their patients, but they’re legally bound to keep that information secret. Drilling companies have found allies in industry-backed regulatory agencies willing to defend them from any moves toward disclosure, even for nearby residents worried about effects on their water and air.
Fossil fuel companies have worked to keep any direct link between fracking and health problems from being publicly established, aggressively challenging any lawsuits claiming fracking operations sickened people. And when victory was impossible, they have opted to settle while imposing strict gag orders to prevent the health effects of fracking from being established in the public record. That’s why a Tuesday ruling in favor of a Texas family claiming $2.95 million in damages for being sickened by fracking pollution was a major step. As Earthjustice managing attorney Deborah Goldberg told ThinkProgress, “as we get more and more information about what the impacts of this industry really are, I think we’re going to see more and more of these kinds of verdicts.”
Even though disclosing potentially dangerous chemicals would be an important move, it wouldn’t address methane leakage. Natural gas wells are leaking up to 1,000 times more methane than the Environmental Protection Agency estimates, a dirty secret that could potentially wipe out all climate benefits touted by natural gas proponents. Methane is the main component of natural gas, and it’s a greenhouse gas that’s 86 times as potent as CO2. Three percent methane leakage would be enough to cancel out any climate advantage of natural gas over coal.
Energy companies have fought hard to keep secret of what chemicals they pump into the ground by the millions of gallons, and they've typically been successful.