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Secrecy Loophole Could Still Weaken BLM's Tougher Fracking Regs

The gas industry wants to protect its trade secrets, but watchdogs want full disclosure of chemicals that can cause blindness, organ failure and cancer.

Feb 15, 2012
Natural gas drilling rig in Colorado.

New regulations drafted by the federal Bureau of Land Management would increase pressure on energy companies to disclose information about the chemicals they use in hydraulic fracturing, a process that extracts oil and natural gas from deep inside the earth.

Nine states already have disclosure laws for hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking. But only one state—Colorado—requires what the BLM would require: the names and concentrations of the individual chemicals pumped into each well. Colorado's hotly-contested rules go into effect in April.


Click here for a chart that compares BLM's proposed regulations with fracking fluid disclosure laws in the nine states that have them.


Health care professionals and scientists say they need this information to track water and air quality near drilling sites, to study the health effects of natural gas development and to deal with emergency spills.

The proposed BLM regulations, which were leaked to InsideClimate News and several other media outlets last week, would apply only to wells drilled on federal land. But critics of hydraulic fracturing said they're an important step forward because they're stronger than most state laws.

The agency "should be congratulated," said Theo Colborn, an environmental health analyst who has studied the health effects of natural gas drilling for eight years and has testified before Congress on the need for full industry disclosure. The rules "really begin to reflect the seriousness of the chemicals they're dealing with."

But Colborn and other critics of hydraulic fracturing say there are gaps in the rules that could make them less effective.

Like all the state laws, the BLM would allow companies to exempt certain chemicals or mixtures of compounds that are considered trade secrets. The rules seem to indicate that getting an exemption will be difficult—but how difficult it will be isn't clear. The rules are also unclear about whether companies will be allowed to keep this proprietary information secret from regulators as well as the public.

The other problem is vague wording about who would have access to the disclosed data. While many states post the information online, the BLM rules don't specify how—or even if—it would make the information available to the public, to health care professionals or to researchers.

Dusty Horwitt, senior counsel at the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that advocates for public health, said the trade secret exemptions "could potentially make the rules meaningless if applied broadly."

"If you know what's being injected, you'd know what to monitor and track," Horwitt said. "That would [help] local landowners and scientists ... It's also important so officials can make informed decisions about where and how to permit drilling."

A BLM spokesman said he couldn't comment on the proposed rules because they haven't been officially released and may still be changed. He said the official version of the rules will be made available at a later time for public comment.

Full Disclosure vs. 'Trade Secrets'

During hydraulic fracturing, companies pump a mixture of water, sand and fracking products underground at high pressure to increase the flow of gas coming out of a well. The chemical products help break up the rock and release the gas trapped inside.

Hundreds of fracking products are available, some created from a single chemical compound, others from a mixture of chemicals. Although the products make up a tiny fraction (sometimes less than 1 percent by volume) of the total fluid injected during fracking, the overall volumes are so high—up to millions of gallons per well—that a single well often requires thousands of gallons of chemicals.

Those chemicals sometimes include formic acid, which can cause blindness; trimethyl ammonium chloride, which can damage the kidneys and brain, and benzene, which is a known carcinogen.

A single well can be fracked many times, and fracking is now used for 90 percent of the wells drilled in the United States.

In December, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency linked fracking to contaminated groundwater in Pavillion, Wyoming. Other scientific studies are underway, but progress has been slow, in part because scientists don't have a complete list of the chemicals they're trying to track.

The rules drafted by the BLM would require companies to report all the products and individual chemicals used at each well, in addition to the chemical concentrations. But the chemicals would not be matched with the products that they go into. The same is true of Colorado's disclosure laws.

Colborn says that's a problem, because if someone is exposed to a particular product, it's important to know the specific chemicals found in that product. The information could help doctors make medical decisions, she said, or guide emergency workers in the event of a spill.

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