A coalition of state water regulators is introducing a first-ever national Web tool to post potentially toxic chemicals used in the gas drilling technique of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on the Internet for all to see.
The Okla.-based Ground Water Protection Council says its system will allow drillers to publish chemical recipes used in the new wells they have "fracked." Disclosure will be on a voluntary basis only, it said, but the group is optimistic firms will participate.
"My hope is that if we build it, they will use it," Mike Paque, executive director of the council, told SolveClimate News.
The "chemical registry" for fracking is being funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and is expected to launch at the end of November. "No one else is doing anything more progressive," Paque said.
But environmental groups, who fear fracking fluids are causing irreversible damage to groundwater, say anything voluntary is not likely to be enough.
"The devil is in the details," said Dusty Horwitt, senior counsel at the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization. "The fact that it's voluntary raises some concerns about how serious the companies are going to be about making this information available in a way that's useful to the public."
"There has to be a federal minimum standard in place," Horwitt told SolveClimate News.
The three crucial parts of a disclosure policy, he said, will be publication of the "unique identifiers" for each contaminant being pumped into the ground, as assigned by the American Chemical Society; disclosure of toxins before and after wells are fracked; and local visibility.
The information has "got to be in a local newspaper, posted at the site, provided to first responders in the area," Horwitt said. The Web, he continued, will not suffice.
Industry: Voluntary Disclosure Is Enough
Fracking is a drilling method that forces water, sand and sometimes toxic chemicals underground to split layers of shale rock and release the gas.
Over a million wells have been fracked countrywide in the last six decades. As drilling operations boom from New York to Wyoming, several hundred new sites are being fractured at any give time.
All the while, cases of water contamination near drilling wells are piling up.
The chemical composition of fracking fluids can include diesel fuel, benzene — a known carcinogen — methane, industrial solvents and other toxins. But the exact combinations and amounts on a well-by-well basis have been protected by drillers as trade secrets.
Currently, there is no federal regulation of the practice. Congress exempted it from regulation under the national Safe Drinking Water Act in energy legislation that passed in 2005.
Twin bills in the U.S. House and Senate, known as the FRAC Act, would lift the exemption and also require disclosure of the chemical mixtures. It has 69 cosponsors in the House and nine in the Senate. But with big Republican gains expected in November, chances of passage are considered slim.
The industry remains adamant that federal laws are not needed and insists there are no proven cases of groundwater contamination from blasting fracking liquids.
In the meantime, the U.S. EPA has waded into the debate.
The agency will begin a scientific review in 2011 into the potential health dangers of fracking. Last month, EPA asked nine leading drillers to voluntarily hand over the names of chemicals they use for its analysis.
EPA told SolveClimate News it expects the firms to comply.
"Most of the companies have indicated that they intend to comply with our request and some have already submitted information," the agency said in an email. "EPA is reviewing the information received, continues to be in discussions with the companies and will quickly determine next steps."
The industry and its supporters say such willingness to disclose is evidence that federal intervention is unnecessary.
Oversight of fracking, they say, must be left to state regulators.
"We believe that because of geology — and all geology is so different — that you can't write a rule that works in New York that also works in Arkansas or Oklahoma or New Mexico," Paque said.
"The states are moving in the direction of disclosure individually," he continued, and companies, including major shale producers Range Resources Corp., Chesapeake Energy Corp. and Anadarko Petroleum Corp., have said they will report their chemicals.
In the Works: 'Travelocity' of Drilling
The point of the new website is to provide a public storehouse for that data for the first time.
Paque said his council is best equipped to head the project because of its record in groundwater protection and experience building a massive online database to track drilling activities.
The group's members include state environmental and resource protection regulatory agencies in 43 states. Over the last 15 years, it built the Risk Based Data Management System, which is used by 25 state agencies to regulate and oversee oil and gas activities. The system was developed under the guidance of the DOE.
The fracking registry will be built upon the same technology platform. Paque said it's a first step in a larger strategy tied to better disclosure in the oil and gas sectors.
Last month, the council announced a "memorandum of understanding" with the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, a 38-state panel that promotes oil and gas drilling, to build out a broader data portal.
The project will provide historical data, not just information on wells currently being fracked.
Paque called it the "Travelocity" of drilling, referring to the popular online travel-planning resource. "This will be a portal where people can ask questions about drilling or a well or chemicals—whatever goes in there," he said.