May 2011

Give us the fracking truth

Anyone who has ever sat through a public hearing about a proposal related to natural-gas drilling has probably heard a spokesperson for the industry say reassuringly that the fluids used in fracturing (fracking) the rock and extracting the gas are “mostly water.”

This is meant to reassure citizens who might be concerned about potential contamination of groundwater by chemicals used in fracking, an issue often raised when drilling proposals are heard.

Well, lots of things are “mostly water.” Human beings are mostly water. The ocean is mostly water. Jim Jones’ Kool-Aid was mostly water, but that doesn’t mean it was benign. The fact is, it’s the chemicals present in water in varying amounts – even minuscule quantities – that determine what the final product is and whether the substance is safe or harmful.

That’s why the push to make drilling companies disclose the contents of their fracking fluids is a welcome development, albeit a long-overdue one.

Colorado Representatives Jared Polis and Diana DeGette, along with Rep. Maurice Hinchey of New York, have proposed legislation in the U.S. House to require disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking. H.R. 1084, The Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act, would require disclosure of the chemical constituents of fracking fluids, but not the exact proprietary formula used by each company. The bill would also require the oil and gas industry to comply with provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act. The bill is currently in a House subcommittee; a similar bill has been introduced in the Senate.

In the meantime, a website has been launched to allow oil and gas companies to voluntarily disclose the contents of their fracking fluids. The website, http://fracfocus.org, is being run by the Groundwater Protection Council, a nationwide group of state regulatory agencies, and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission. It allows anyone to look up individual wells and find out what chemicals were used in their drilling – if, of course, the company responsible has posted the information. According to the Denver Post, close to 400 wells were registered in the first 10 days after the website’s launch, and pressure is increasing on all companies to provide this data. The president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, a trade group, told the Post that the association “strongly supports” its members’ participation in the web site.

Worry over the chemicals used in fracking has intensified in recent years, fueled partly by documentaries such as “Gasland,” a film that features landowners who believe their wells and drinking water have been contaminated because of nearby drilling. The film relies more on anecdotes than solid data, and questions have been raised about the accuracy of some of its claims. Certainly there is no need to demonize the entire industry when all of us rely on oil and gas in our everyday lives.

But citizens are right to raise questions of their own about the health and environmental effects of natural-gas drilling and to expect thorough, solid answers to those questions – not just vague assurances. Having clear, specific, easily accessible information about the contents of fracking fluid would be a great benefit, and it’s difficult to see how the industry could argue against such disclosure.

Anyway, some companies already are making that information available, either through the FracFocus website or because of requirements in their own states.

Some industry advocates have said federal regulations for disclosure aren’t needed because of existing state laws regulating oil and gas development. But that’s a feeble argument. The cashstrapped states may have regulations, but they don’t do a lot of monitoring and enforcement. A nationwide requirement for fracking information can only help citizens and the industry as well by providing transparency and information instead of rumors and fear.