Transparency at center of fracking debate
In September, the state of Wyoming began requiring public disclosure of the contents of fluids used in hydraulic fracturing in oil and gas wells.
It’s a case study that Jeff Madison, Rio Blanco County planning director and natural-resources specialist, finds instructive as the U.S. Department of Interior considers a possible similar requirement for drilling overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.
“Wyoming requires it, and I don’t think the Earth has come to a stop. They’re still drilling in Wyoming,” Madison said.
Rio Blanco County hasn’t taken a position on the issue, but Madison said his own view is the possible Interior Department requirement wouldn’t stop drilling on BLM land. And if it’s true that there are no negative impacts from the fluids companies use, Madison said, he would think they would want to disclose the fluids’ makeup.
“Frankly I’m kind of baffled why they’re reluctant to do this,” he said.
Madison also thinks the threat to domestic groundwater from hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is remote in his county because companies are drilling so deep there, generally 15,000 feet.
Rio Blanco implications
A disclosure requirement by the Interior Department, something Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced as a possibility late last year, would have limited effect in Colorado. The BLM estimates that in 2009, 9 percent of permits issued in the state were federal ones. That figure was 10 percent in Garfield County, which led the state in permits issued that year. But it’s a different story in Rio Blanco County, where 56 percent of the permits were federal.
The county is 75 percent federal land, and Madison believes as much as two-thirds to three-quarters of the county’s drilling may be occurring on public land.
Frank Smith, director of organizing for the Western Colorado Congress citizens group, calls the Interior Department’s proposal “a great first step … that would have national consequences.” But he said it’s important to have disclosure requirements on private land as well. He also would like to see a federal disclosure approach rather than a piecemeal state one.
The Interior Department’s possible move could have implications beyond the lands and minerals the BLM governs.
The proposal “is a critical step forward in encouraging the oil and gas industry to be more transparent and responsibly address the potential implications of hydraulic fracturing on water supplies and public health,” 46 Democratic members of Congress said in a Jan. 12 letter to Salazar.
The leading forces behind the letter were U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette of Denver, Jared Polis of Boulder and Maurice Hinchey of New York state. The three Democrats last year sponsored legislation that would have required disclosure of fracking-fluid chemicals used on public and private lands, and it would have regulated fracking under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Offering a different view, 32 members of Congress belonging to the Congressional Natural Gas Caucus urged Salazar to back off the possible disclosure requirements. The 32 include six Democrats and one Colorado congressman, Republican Mike Coffman.
The caucus contends fracking is safe and is properly managed by states, and that “hastily proposed regulatory burdens” would increase consumer energy costs, hurt energy-sector jobs and reduce the nation’s energy independence.
They called on Salazar to hold off on any disclosure requirement pending completion of an ongoing Environmental Protection Agency study on hydraulic fracturing.
The EPA is looking into the issue as a result of concerns that fracking fluids may pose a threat to drinking-water supplies.
The fluids, usually made up mostly of water but also containing chemicals and other substances, are injected into underground formations under high pressure to crack open rock and free up oil and gas.
The industry says fracking fluids never have been shown to have contaminated domestic groundwater.
But DeGette said in a prepared statement, “Without disclosure, authorities investigating incidents of concern to communities and residents are unable to prove one way or another the role hydraulic fracturing might have played in the contamination.”
The Wyoming experience
A growing number of energy developers say they support disclosure, but they cite reluctance by some fracturing-service companies to reveal proprietary formulas.
At a Nov. 30 Interior Department forum on fracking, Tom Doll, supervisor of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said his agency has found the reluctance goes beyond those service companies to the “secondary chemical market” that supplies them.
Doll said regulators issued about a dozen trade-secret exemptions, “not a large number to this point.” To seek exemptions, companies must indicate things such as how much they’ve spent on research and development of their proprietary substances and the consequences to them if the chemicals are disclosed publicly.
In the case of exemptions, the information still must be made available to state regulators, but it is kept from public disclosure unless there is an incident, Doll said.
Wyoming’s rules go beyond ones recently imposed by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Colorado requires companies to maintain inventories of fracturing additives and other chemicals used in wells, and provide them to state officials or health care officials when needed to respond to concerns about possible impacts.
A major gas developer in Rio Blanco County, ExxonMobil, has voiced support for disclosure of fracturing fluid ingredients by energy companies. ExxonMobil owns drilling rights on about 300,000 acres in northwest Colorado’s Piceance Basin, and 90 percent of that is beneath federal land.
Sherri Stuewer, vice president for environmental policy and planning for Exxon Mobil, said at the November forum, “We have been working through several industry associations to design a system that provides regulators, first responders and the public with the information they desire.”
She said industry operational standards, such as ones developed by the American Petroleum Institute, have been an important part of improving the safety of fracking, “but they are not sufficient because they don’t necessarily address community concerns.”
The American Petroleum Institute, which represents more than 400 oil and gas companies, is supporting a voluntary chemical-disclosure registry being developed by the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission and the Ground Water Protection Council. The council is made up of state groundwater agencies.
“The states are the proper authority for determining requirements for chemical disclosure, so a program developed by the GWPC and endorsed by the IOGCC is a step toward a solution on disclosure,” the American Petroleum Institute’s chief executive officer, Jack Gerard, said in announcing its support.
At the November forum, Fred Toney, a vice president with Baker Hughes, a fracking-services provider, said his company supports disclosure, specifically the voluntary registry concept. But it has to be responsible in its disclosures to protect its intellectual property, he said.
“We have been in this business for over five decades and had a lot of time to develop those formulas. It’s not that we’re pumping poisons in (wells), it’s just a specific formula we’re trying to protect,” he said.
New Mexico’s approach
Also at the forum, Mark Fesmire, head of New Mexico’s Oil Conservation Division, said fracking gets blamed for problems that can be prevented through means such as proper management of waste from production and well-integrity rules that prevent seepage from oil and gas formations to shallower groundwater zones.
Failure to properly control waste “is the source of most of the problems that other states have been having,” Fesmire said.
Two and a half years ago, New Mexico passed a pit rule with requirements such as liners to prevent leaks. Since then, it hasn’t had any groundwater contamination related to facilities governed by the rule, he said.
Unfortunately, he said, New Mexico’s newly elected governor, Susana Martinez, threatened to revoke that rule.
“And if she does, I think we can expect New Mexico to start having some of the problems associated with fracking that they’re having in other states,” he said.
Colorado has suffered groundwater contamination from leaking pits, and its new oil and gas rules include requirements for the broad use of pit liners.