Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

More states ordering disclosure of fracking chemicals

In a belated attempt to soothe public suspicion about shale-gas drilling, state regulators increasingly are forcing natural gas producers to disclose the chemicals used to hydraulically fracture natural gas wells.

In a belated attempt to soothe public suspicion about shale-gas drilling, state regulators increasingly are forcing natural gas producers to disclose the chemicals used to hydraulically fracture natural gas wells.

Starting Feb. 1, Texas becomes the latest state to require drilling companies to disclose the volumes of chemicals and water they use in "fracking," which involves the high-pressure injection of chemically treated water and sand deep underground to release entrapped oil and gas.

Texas is the fifth state to require the disclosure of well-by-well data with an online public clearinghouse, Colorado, Montana, Louisiana, and North Dakota also require posting of data with FracFocus.

Pennsylvania, where the Marcellus Shale natural gas boom has been under way since 2008, last year required drillers to submit detailed accountings of the material within 30 days of completing a well. The public information is retained at the Department of Environmental Protection's regional offices.

Though Pennsylvania does not require online disclosure, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry trade group, on Jan. 1 began requiring its members to post their data with FracFocus. The coalition's membership covers most major gas producers in the state, but 27 smaller Pennsylvania operators are not registered with FracFocus.

A statewide environmental group says that Pennsylvania's rules do not go far enough and that the federal government should require a uniform disclosure nationwide.

"In this day and age, it is ridiculous for someone to have to make an appointment at one of DEP's district offices to access this information that some companies freely post to an industry-run website," said Jan Jarrett, president of Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future.

The chemical-disclosure issue has become a proxy for public apprehension with all aspects of hydraulic fracturing, a pivotal technology that has opened up vast new oil and gas reserves in recent years, radically altering the nation's energy outlook.

America's Natural Gas Alliance and other industry trade groups have rallied to support voluntary public disclosure as a way to recover from the self-inflicted public relations disaster the industry caused when it initially declined to reveal some ingredients at the behest of contractors who said their frack fluids were proprietary.

Anti-drilling activists have raised the specter of a "witch's brew" of hundreds of toxic chemicals, while the industry says water and sand make up 99 percent of the mixture and a small volume of additives mainly keep the mixture flowing smoothly under high pressure.

"The truth is, it's not a witch's brew by any stretch of the imagination," said James T. Hackett, chief executive officer of Anadarko Petroleum Corp. "But that doesn't mean that people are going to be assured just because you said it wasn't."

The industry's attempts to assure the public that hydraulic fracturing is a harmless procedure undermined public confidence, said John M. Deutch, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemistry professor who was chairman of a presidential panel last year that studied the shale-gas industry.

"Despite the fact that industry has withdrawn its opposition and regulators are beginning to move to require full disclosure of fracturing fluid composition, it remains the single largest public concern about hydraulic fracturing and shale-gas production," Deutch, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said Wednesday at a summit sponsored by Rice University's James A. Baker 3d Institute for Public Policy.

FracFocus was organized with the industry's cooperation by the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, which represent state regulatory agencies. It received funding from the U.S. Department of Energy.

"We're not here to advocate for hydraulic fracturing or against it," said Mike Nickolaus, special projects director at the Ground Water Protection Council in Oklahoma City, which manages the site. "From our standpoint, protection of groundwater is of paramount importance."

FracFocus went online in April and last week posted data on its 10,000th well. The data include details on 885 Pennsylvania wells.

So far, the disclosures have not revealed any information on toxic ingredients that anti-drilling activists have identified as new issues. Typically, fracturing fluids contain a dozen or more compounds including surfactants to keep the sand suspended, polymer friction-reducers to speed the mixture into the well, and disinfectants to prevent bacteria from clogging the hairline fractures created in the rock by the pressurized injections.

Companies are still allowed to assert that some chemicals are a trade secret, but they must disclose the ingredients to the states "to make sure the regulators are assured they've seen every bit of chemical composition," said Anadarko's Hackett, whose company has posted data with FracFocus on 1,317 wells.

Many states, like Pennsylvania, require the information also be posted at the well site for access by emergency responders.

The industry's aim by promoting disclosure appears to be to reduce political pressure on Congress to regulate oil and gas drilling nationally. Legislation cosponsored by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D., Pa.) would allow the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate hydraulic fracturing under the Clean Water Act. Industry groups argue that states are best suited to regulate oil and gas drilling, the current practice.

Environmental groups argue that the rules are now inconsistently applied from state to state: Wyoming requires disclosure before fracturing begins, but not online.

"There should be a federal requirement so that everybody gets the same information at the same time," said Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Fracking Focus is a national searchable database of information on more than 10,000 hydraulically fractured wells:

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has posted an overview of the fracturing process: