Fracking Companies Keep 10% of Chemicals Secret, EPA Says

The agency's assessment of fracking fluid disclosure is part of its broader study on fracking and water—and spotlights the project's limitations.

New analysis spotlights the limitations of the EPA's broader study of fracking and water. Launched in 2011 and delayed repeatedly, the study was supposed to provide definitive answers to the public's concerns about fracking's possible effect on drinking water. But industry pushed has narrowed its focus. Credit: A hydraulic fracturing operation in Colorado/Ecoflight

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Oil and gas companies refuse to disclose 10 percent of the hundreds of chemicals they use during hydraulic fracturing, according to a new analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency. The revelation comes in a major installment of the EPA’s study of the potential risks of fracking on drinking water.

The agency’s assessment of more than 39,000 reports from the website FracFocus about the composition of fracking fluid also showed that “at least one chemical was identified as confidential business information in 70 percent of the disclosures analyzed,” wrote Tom Burke, EPA’s science adviser, in an agency blog.

FracFocus is an industry-backed Web portal where companies voluntarily post information about the fluids they use during hydraulic fracturing, which entails blasting water laced with sand and chemicals into geological formations to release oil and gas. From the FracFocus data, the EPA determined the most common ingredients in fracking fluids and the amount and type of water used, and it provided a state-by-state breakdown of the information.

But the FracFocus analysis also spotlights the limitations of the EPA’s broader study of fracking and water. Launched in 2011 and delayed repeatedly, the study was supposed to provide definitive answers to the public’s concerns about fracking’s possible effect on drinking water. But pushback from the oil and gas companies and the EPA’s weakness relative to the multi-billion dollar fossil fuel sector narrowed the project’s scope, an InsideClimate News report shows.

Most notably, the $29 million initiative will not include baseline studies that provide chemical snapshots of water before and after fracking. Such data is essential to determine whether drilling contaminated water or whether toxic substances were present before oil and gas development began.

The comprehensive fracking water study is expected this spring. The FracFocus report is one of several elements in the project, including:

  • Computer modeling to understand whether fracking could contaminate water.

  • Laboratory studies of how fracking fluids might create new compounds in geological formations.

  • Toxicology assessments of fracking fluids.

  • Case studies, including retrospective research that would examine cases of reported water contamination at fracked sites.

When combined other EPA research, the FracFocus report will “provide a new lens to help our states and communities understand the potential impacts on our drinking water resources from hydraulic fracturing,” EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia said in an email.

692 Unique Ingredients

The new analysis looked at reports that companies filed with FracFocus about their fracking fluid ingredients from January 2011 to February 2013. The data were provided by 428 well operators in 20 states, mostly in the Northeast, such as Pennsylvania, and in the West, such as Texas, North Dakota and Colorado. About 88 percent of fracking fluid is water, another 10 percent is sand and 2 percent or less is chemicals, the data show.

The EPA identified 692 unique ingredients among the fracking fluids it reviewed. But the most common substances were hydrochloric acid, methanol and “hydrotreated light petroleum distillates.”

Skin exposure to hydrochloric acid can cause irritation and chemical burns. Low exposure to hydrochloric acid fumes can irritate the eyes, nose, throat and mouth; high concentrations can lead to shortness of breath and asphyxia. Ingesting moderate concentrations of methanol can lead to myriad impacts from headaches to blurred vision, and high concentrations can lead to blindness, possibly death. Hydrotreated light petroleum distillates can trigger a host of health problems if inhaled at certain concentrations, such as dizziness, headaches and nausea.

The FracFocus analysis did not determine whether most of the chemicals stayed underground, and it did not examine whether they had been found in drinking water. 

The EPA report also showed that on average, it takes about 1.5 million gallons of water to fracture a well. Such water consumption has become an issue at some oil and gas sites in the West, where drought has constrained water supplies.

FracFocus Under Fire

Watchdog groups have questioned the EPA’s reliance on FracFocus data for the broader study. The EPA’s own proviso about the missing ingredients points to the drawbacks of the site, said Adam Kron, a lawyer with the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), a research and legal group based in Washington.

In the past, academics and journalists have questioned key aspects of FracFocus. The site is voluntary, giving rise to concerns that only the best actors in the oil and gas sector post data to it. Companies themselves decide which ingredients to omit as trade secrets, rather than abiding by uniform criteria or having a third party make the judgment. The data are not easily searchable, making it very difficult for users to track trends in fracking by company, area or chemical.

The EPA’s Purchia said that the Obama administration is working with FracFocus to improve transparency. “The Department of Energy is working with the Ground Water Protection Council [a founder of FracFocus] toward implementing a ‘systems approach’ to chemical disclosure that should reduce the number of trade secret claims. As we move forward we will consider approaches that maximize transparency while protecting legitimate intellectual property needs,” she said.

EIP’s Kron said that his group has long pressed the EPA to have the oil and gas industry report fracking fluid ingredients under an EPA program called the Toxic Release Inventory, a public database of hazardous chemicals and wastes the regulator compiles. Oil refineries, petrochemical plants and a range of manufacturers from maple syrup makers to greeting card factories must report annually to the government toxic chemicals they handle or produce above certain thresholds. The regulator, not the company, determines if chemicals can be kept from public view as a trade secret, Kron said.

But the EPA has long refused to take action on the issue, Kron said. For more than 30 years, Congress and administrations of both parties have exempted oil and gas field activity from major environmental rules, and the EPA has been reluctant to tighten oversight.

“I can see why the EPA might not want to do aggressive rulemaking given how the administration backs oil and gas production,” Kron said. “But they don’t even want to get data. It just seems extremely meek, not wanting to get data. Data drives action, and if you don’t have that, you can’t even talk about an issue.”

InsideClimate News reporter Zahra Hirji contributed to this report.