Critics Find Gaps in State Laws to Disclose Hydrofracking Chemicals
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Over the past year, five states have begun requiring energy companies to disclose some of the chemicals they pump into the ground to extract oil and gas using the process of hydraulic fracturing.
While state regulators and the drilling industry say the rules should help resolve concerns about the safety of drilling, critics and some toxicologists say the requirements fall short of what’s needed to fully understand the risks to public health and the environment.
The regulations allow companies to keep proprietary chemicals secret from the public and, in some state, from regulators. Though most of the states require companies to report the volume and concentration of different drilling products, no state asks for the amounts of all the ingredients, a gap that some say is disturbing.
“It’s a shell game,” said Theo Colborn, a toxicologist who has testified before Congress about the dangers of drilling chemicals. Colborn and her organization, TEDX, examine the long-term health risks of chemicals and have opposed the expansion of drilling in Colorado and elsewhere. “They’re not telling you everything that there is to know.”
Others say the regulations, despite some flaws, are moving in the right direction. “It’s just a step in the process,” said the Sierra Club’s Cyrus Reed, who worked on a bill signed into law in Texas on Friday .
Most drillers have supported the measures. Some say more complete disclosure isn’t necessary because the information that remains secret involves only nonhazardous chemicals or trade secrets that are a small fraction of products they inject. Energy companies recently have begun voluntarily disclosing some of the chemicals they use on FracFocus , a web site run by two groups representing state regulators.
“While we support disclosing our ingredients, it is critical to our business that we protect our recipe,” Tara Mullee Agard, a spokeswoman for Halliburton, one of the world’s largest oil and gas service companies, told ProPublica in an email.
Gas drilling has surged across the country over the past few years due to technological advances that include hydraulic fracturing, in which drillers pump millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals underground to free up trapped deposits of natural gas. Energy companies are increasingly using the technique, dubbed “fracking,” in oil recovery, particularly in Texas and North Dakota.
ProPublica first began reporting on health and environmental concerns surrounding fracking three years ago. Gas companies are exempt from federal laws protecting water supplies, leaving it up to states to decide what sort of regulations are needed to protect ground and surface water.
Wyoming takes the lead
Wyoming’s rules are the strongest in place, although it’s unclear how thoroughly they are being enforced. The rules require public disclosure of all the chemicals except for trade secrets, which drillers must submit for regulators’ eyes only. The only thing the rule lacks, critics say, is a requirement to report the concentration of the individual chemicals.
Three reports that were selected at random and reviewed by ProPublica appeared to leave out some of the chemicals used. Tom Doll, the state’s oil and gas supervisor, said his agency has two staff members reviewing each of the reports.
“They’ve obviously missed some of these,” he said.
In Arkansas, manufacturers are not required to disclose proprietary fracking chemicals to regulators. Rules in Texas, Michigan and Pennsylvania have similar exemptions. ( See a summary of the state rules .)
Some environmentalists and toxicologists say the state rules give energy companies too much discretion.
Companies can get trade secret protection, for instance, simply by asserting that disclosure would hurt their business and showing that details about a chemical are not otherwise public. More than 100 such exemptions have been granted in Wyoming, though most of the exempt products haven’t been used, Doll said.