Drillers May Be Told to Disclose Fracking Chemicals

Thursday, December 2, 2010

By Dusty Horwitt, EWG Senior Counsel

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said this week that his department is weighing a plan to require energy companies to disclose what chemicals they use when hydraulically fracturing wells on federal land, a welcome step that would help to lift the veil of secrecy that usually shrouds the toxic mixtures used in the process. We commend him for this proposal and urge him to take action.

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” involves injecting a mix of water, sand and chemicals under high pressure into underground formations in order to release gas and oil locked in the rock. Congress exempted fracking from virtually all environmental regulation in 2005, but reports of groundwater contamination amid the current domestic gas drilling boom have led to calls for new disclosure requirements. The industry and its backers in Congress continue to insist that the process poses no risk to near-surface groundwater supplies because fracking takes place thousands of feet further underground.

However, many of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing are extremely toxic, as an Environmental Working Group report, Drilling Around the Law, detailed earlier in 2010. Citizens and regulators who suspect possible water or air contamination need to know what chemicals are being used so that they can test for them or take other action.

The state of Wyoming, which encompasses millions of acres owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management and where the Interior Department oversees drilling, recently began requiring chemical disclosure for every hydraulically fractured well.  Interior’s move to extend disclosure requirements to all of its vast holdings would be an important step toward guaranteeing that drilling is conducted safely.

Interior’s plan should include three important elements.

  • First, companies must disclose every chemical used in each well, including its Chemical Abstracts Services (CAS) registry number. These numbers, assigned by the American Chemical Society to identify unique chemical substances, enable scientists, government officials and citizens to know precisely what chemicals are being used. Wyoming’s new rule includes this requirement, although there is an exception for trade secrets. Such an exception should not prevent the disclosure of each chemical injected into a well; companies can simply list them without revealing how they are combined, much as Coke and other food and beverage makers do when they disclose their ingredients.
  • Second, disclosure must occur both before drilling begins and after it is complete. This allows citizens and regulators to review in advance what chemicals will be injected. A second round of disclosure is also important in case drillers change the mix they use along the way. It is essential for those investigating potential contamination to know exactly what chemicals were actually used so that they know what to test for in water supplies or soil. Wyoming requires disclosure prior to and after fracturing, though there is some uncertainty whether the post-fracturing disclosure requires CAS numbers. All disclosures should include CAS numbers.
  • Third, companies must provide the public with easy access to the information. Merely disclosing it on a website is not sufficient. Colorado law governing the underground injection of oil and gas waste fluids, which may include those from fracking activity, requires companies to publish an advertisement in a local newspaper and mail notices to adjacent landowners before beginning the process. Similar disclosure ought to be part of any Interior Department requirement.

The natural gas drilling boom is at  a fever pitch and companies are using the toxic hydraulic fracturing process more intensively than ever.

Salazar must make sure they do it right, and in the full light of day.


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