By Teresa Wiltz, Special to Stateline
Most states aren’t doing enough to ensure the water safety and health of communities near gas wells where hydraulic fracking takes place, according to a new report by a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy group. Those states that do have chemical disclosure policies in place, the OMB Watch report says, have loopholes that essentially allow companies to circumvent disclosure regulations.
According to the report, of the 30 states that are engaged in natural gas drilling, only 13 have passed some legislation regulating fracking, a controversial drilling technique that pumps large volumes of water mixed with chemicals and sand into the ground in an attempt to break apart shale rock and free natural gas.
“The good news is the states are trying to step into this breach left by the complete lack of federal oversight,” said Sean Moulton, director of federal information policy for OMB Watch. “The bad news is they’re not putting all the pieces together for an effective oversight.”
Moulton said that no one state has established a chemical disclosure policy strong enough to protect the water supply of communities near gas wells. No state currently has laws in place requiring gas companies to test water supplies before drilling takes place, he said, making it difficult to determine what’s causing contamination if water becomes polluted after fracking has begun.
“Without that testing, when people’s wells do get polluted, industry response is, ‘That’s naturally occurring pollution, that’s not from us,’” Moulton said. “Because there’s no baseline reporting, there’s no way to prove it.”
Over the years, there have been alarming reports of contamination where residents living near gas wells demonstrate how they can light a match to water and set it aflame. Environmentalists have been strong proponents of banning fracking, claiming that it contaminates water supplies. But so far, there’s been no scientific data directly linking fracking to water pollution.
A point of contention between the natural gas industry and regulators is the industry’s reluctance to disclose the chemicals they use in their fracking products, citing that the ingredients are “confidential business information” and disclosing them would mean losing their competitive advantage.
“We have supported efforts by states across the country as they develop rules governing hydraulic fracturing to meet the particular needs of their communities,” said Daniel Whitten, a spokesman with the America's Natural Gas Alliance. “Many of those states have established disclosure regimes, and we have engaged constructively in those processes.”
Whitten said that companies in the alliance voluntarily report on the contents of the chemicals they use in the hydraulic fracturing process on both government and private lands at fracfocus.org.
Colorado has been at the forefront of fracking disclosure regulation, according to the OMB Watch report, including requiring detailed information on chemicals used and limiting confidential business exemptions. Wyoming also has fairly extensive regulations in place.
The report recommends that states require natural gas well owners and operators to submit baseline water testing information to get a drilling permit. It also recommends that the drilling companies provide specific information about the chemical composition of their products and that states should enact clear policies about trade secret exemptions. Information about the chemicals used in the drilling and harvesting process should also be posted on a public website, the report said.