States Getting 'Fracking' Acts Together

Across the country, the process of drilling for natural gas has created an explosion of controversy around the rules of disclosure.
by | June 1, 2011

There seems to be no bottom to this “fracking” debate.

On one side, you have the energy companies that pump water, sand and chemicals underground in a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to unlock pockets of natural gas. The natural gas industry claims that this resource represents a clean alternative to coal and oil. But on the other side of the fence are the environmentalists who say this practice pollutes water supplies.

At the core of the controversy is a simple question: Is fracking deadly?

The answer, unfortunately, is all over the map. Back in 2004, an Environmental Protection Agency study found that the practice had little effect on drinking water. But opponents contend that the findings were flawed, diluted, contaminated by political interests behind the scenes. (The EPA is working on a new study now.) It’s not exactly a new method, but the practice has exploded in recent years due to new technology. These energy companies have been digging under the radar of regulations: There is no federal rule that forces oil companies to reveal their fracking chemicals. (There is a voluntary site where drillers can voluntarily disclose fracking fluid for newer wells:

Needless to say, citizens are concerned about fracking. In Pennsylvania, for instance, this process has been going on for years, but now the gas industry wants to explore northeastern Pennsylvania and the watershed of the Delaware River, according to the Star-Ledger, a move which has led to a flood of reactions.

The perceived dangers have sparked response from the public. As the Delaware River Basin Commission, a regulatory agency with members from the four states along the river and the federal government, continues to draft regulations for gas drilling in its watershed, about 58,000 comments flooded into the agency before an April 15 deadline — more than 10 times that of other high-profile public issues in recent memory, a commission official said.

But now, several states are trying to find middle ground by establishing rules that address pollution concerns and increase transparency. Leading the charge is Wyoming, a state that was under fire in 2009 after federal environmental officials found chemicals and other contaminants in some of the state’s water wells. Last year, Wyoming became the first state in the nation to institute rules for energy companies to disclose contents of fluids used in fracking to both the state government and the public, according to the Casper Star-Tribune.

This past March, the “FRAC Act” was reintroduced to both the U.S. House and the Senate, which would make full disclosure federal law. Other states, including Michigan, Texas, Montana and California are following suit.

“There’s a lot of activity at the federal level, and of course the states are trying to get rules on the books,” Tom Doll, superintendent of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission told the Star-Tribune. “It shows they’re being protective and requiring disclosure as well, so it’s really controlled at the state level where it should be instead of the federal level.”

But, of course, it’s not that easy. Apparently, oil companies don’t take too kindly to the idea of divulging precious trade secrets.

"A lot of these things are trademarked formulas that people have spent a lot of money and intellectual property to develop," Dave Galt of the Montana Petroleum Association told the Associated Press. "To just disclose that, to have it hanging out there, is a problem.”

Montana regulators hope to get around the barrier in their full-disclosure rule by including an exception that would let companies withhold trade secrets. But that exception undermines the entire push for transparency because as the Northern Plains Council noted in the AP article, the loophole would keep residents in the dark as to what chemicals were being injected into the ground.

While national interest in fracking has fueled the surge of state proposals, Bozeman Sen. Bob Hawks sponsored a bill for full disclosure in Montana. His brother, Paul Hawks, a Melville area rancher, said that the proposed rule with the exception only scratches the surface of the issue.

"As a rancher who has leased the minerals, I expect to know what chemicals are being pumped into the ground,” Hawks told the AP, “so that I can protect my water resources from possible contamination.”