Disclosure of chemicals in gas fracking advances

This week brought some important advances in the campaign to give the public access to information on chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells. CAP’s Tom Kenworthy has the story.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar strongly suggested that a policy overhaul at his department would include new requirements for public disclosure of chemicals used on federal lands that contain 11% of U.S. natural gas reserves. And three energy industry trade groups announced they will support efforts to create a registry where oil and gas companies can voluntarily post — well by well — what chemicals they use.

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Despite the continuing shift toward disclosure by the very industry they purport to protect, key GOP members of Congress engaged in some predictable caterwauling about how transparency will kill jobs and hurt an industry they laughably maintain is sufficiently regulated by the states. In essence, two lawmakers who will have a big say over public land management come January said: “over our (brain) dead bodies.”

Hydraulic fracturing, commonly called fracking, is a widely-used process to stimulate production from oil and gas wells. It involves pumping a combination of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure into wells to create and hold open fissures in underground rock formations. Though the technique was developed more than a half century ago, it has more recently become nearly standard industry practice. It is used on about 90 percent of wells on public lands, according to the federal Bureau of Land Management.

As its use has grown in combination with horizontal drilling, and as huge new natural gas fields have been developed to exploit shale gas formations from the northeast to Texas, public concerns have mushroomed about the chemicals being used and the possibilities of contamination of water supplies if fracturing fluid is spilled or escapes underground. In the wake of numerous anecdotal accounts of water wells being contaminated by drilling operations, the Environmental Protection Agency is in the early stages of conducting a thorough study of hydraulic fracturing and its potential risks to public health.

Wading into this controversy, Salazar said Tuesday his department is drawing up a new policy governing drilling techniques on federal land. He didn’t leave a lot of doubt the policy would include a requirement that operators disclose what chemicals they use.

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Speaking at a forum [transcript here] at the Interior Department, Salazar said “We will be considering issuing a policy that will deal with the issue of disclosure requirements with respect to the fluids that are used with hydraulic fracturing”¦. There are those who argue that the best interest for the future of natural gas is to make sure there is transparency with respect to that issue so that everybody knows what is being injected into the underground.”

The department’s public forum on hydraulic fracturing came a day after the New York State Assembly approved a moratorium on new wells using the technique. The legislation, already approved by the state Senate, is expected to be signed into law by Gov. David Paterson.

Also this week, three oil and gas industry trade associations — America’s Natural Gas Alliance, the Independent Petroleum Association of America and the American Exploration & Production Council — announced their support for the establishment of a fracking chemicals registry being developed by the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission. Though participation in the registry would be voluntary by individual companies, it still represents a meaningful, if incomplete, step.

Obviously, the energy industry is beginning to read the writing on the wall as far as public disclosure is concerned. Not so illiterate members of Congress, including Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA), who will likely assume the chairmanship of the House Natural Resources Committee, and Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), who will probably take over the panel’s public lands subcommittee.

In a letter to Salazar, Hastings said the policy referenced by the Interior secretary “would threaten thousands of jobs, deepen the federal deficit through reduced revenues, and harm natural gas development and our nation’s energy security.” For his part, Bishop told E&E Daily (subs. req’d) that “There is no reason the federal government should impose additional regulations and red tape on our nation’s domestic energy producers.”

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No reason except for the fact that only one state, Wyoming of all places, has solid requirements for public disclosure of fracking chemicals — and before actual drilling takes place. Real trade secrets are protected, and the system appears to be working well.

Tom Kenworthy is a CAP Senior Fellow who focuses on renewable energy and environmental issues.

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