States of Denial: We Don’t Need No Fracking Info

by Bill Chameides | May 20th, 2014
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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Should the ingredients in fracking fluid be proprietary information? Or essential disclosure to ensure safe drinking water supplies? (iStockphoto)
Should the ingredients in fracking fluid be proprietary information? Or essential disclosure to ensure safe drinking water supplies? (iStockphoto)

Oil and gas interests trump truth for many state legislators. The first of a two-part series.

First a quick note to our readers: TheGreenGrok tries to remain nonpartisan in its coverage of all things environmental. Some may feel that this post crosses the line. But when the facts lead to a conclusion, you just gotta go there.

Republicans and the fossil fuel industry. If the flow of cash from the latter to the campaign coffers of the former is any indication, you gotta admit that many a GOP’er has a good thing going. And in case you’re wondering if the relationship is a one-way street, consider two cases in point.

Today’s case whisks us to North Carolina, my home state and a place already infamous for outlawing sea level rise.

We Don’t Want No Fracking Chemical Disclosure

By now you’ve probably heard of fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, the controversial technique of pumping a mix of water, sand and chemicals into the ground at high pressure to liberate fuel from the rock it is trapped in. The composition of fracking fluids has long been a source of contention. On the one side have been the gas companies who view fracking fluid as proprietary information. On the other are homeowners and environmentalists who, fearing that toxic chemicals in the fracking fluids may contaminate drinking water, want to know what those chemicals are.

While this disagreement is far from being settled, some interesting developments have moved the bar closer to … partial disclosure. While many companies now disclose at least some of their fracking chemicals on, a kind of clearinghouse for this information, companies still keep some chemicals that they call proprietary secret.

This spring, in a break from its competitors, Baker-Hughes, one of the nation’s largest providers of fracking services, announced it will begin disclosing all chemicals used in its fracking operations. (More here.)

In the public arena groups have taken to the courts to try to force full disclosure.

Texas was the first state to require the disclosure of all fracking chemicals. In Wyoming the state supreme court recently ruled that the state regulatory body must reconsider public disclosure rules.

And now the Environmental Protection Agency is weighing in with its announcement of a 90-day comment period seeking public input on enhanced transparency of the chemical cocktails used in hydraulic fracturing.

All this sounds like progress — industry agreeing to voluntarily provide the public with important information. Information that we can use to assure that our drinking water, rivers and streams remain uncontaminated, and, by the way, information that can help protect industry from unwarranted claims of contamination.

But there are some in the North Carolina legislature who don’t think such information should be in the hands of the public. Last week the “Energy Modernization Act” was introduced by State Senators Bob Rucho, Andrew Brok, and Buck Newton, all Republicans. The bill would limit knowledge of proprietary fracking chemicals to state officials, emergency responders and medical personnel. The bill could require these persons to sign confidentiality agreements. Disclosing these trade secrets would be a Class 1 felony.

The bill would also preempt local communities from passing ordinances to limit or control drilling as well as limit the amount of background water testing prior to drilling.

Of course, at the moment the bill’s passage would be moot as fracking operations have yet to be green-lighted in the state. But, given that permits could be issued as soon as next year, I guess there are some folks who want to make sure the welcome mat is in place just in case.

It’s fascinating to ponder what Rucho et al. are so worried about to propose such a bill. The bill itself provides little insight except for this phrase in the beginning of Section 7a on trade secret and confidential information:

“The General Assembly finds that while confidential information must be maintained as such with the utmost care, for the protection of public health, safety, and the environment, the information should be immediately accessible to first responders and medical personnel in the event that the information is deemed necessary to address an emergency.”

Hmm. Maintain “confidential information” for “public health, safety, and the environment.” Perhaps they fear that once we all know the complete chemical list of what makes up the fracking cocktail, we’ll all start small side-fracking operations of our own. And that would surely be bad for public safety. OK, sorry for the dark sarcasm. You figure it out.

For part two of our series we head to Wyoming.


End Note

* The trade secret claim can be fairly extensive too. For example in August 2011, of the 148 chemicals used by 11 companies in Wyoming, the state granted trade secret protections for 146.

filed under: energy, faculty, fossil fuels, fracking, health, policy, politics, pollution, water
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