What new hydraulic fracturing rules might mean when announced

“WTF” is the more than slightly irreverent abbreviation used in texting and emails when the writer questions some action, event or opinion. But it’s come to mean something else in the context of the debate over how public the list of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing should be.

I’ll leave it to readers to decipher the first use. In the second case, the question is “What the frack?”

It’s a question scheduled to be answered, at least in part, today in Colorado. And some of those awaiting that answer from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission are located far from our immediate environs, as drilling activity, particularly in new shale gas and shale oil plays, expands from remote areas to the suburbs of some Front Range communities. 

The Oil and Gas Commission’s decision regarding tougher fracking rules was expected earlier, but was delayed by the recent announcement from the Environmental Protection Agency that the agency’s draft study of hydraulic fracturing near the central Wyoming community of Pavilion had linked chemicals used in the fracking process to groundwater contamination in the area. 

That brings into question the industry’s long-held position that there’ve been no documented cases of fracking fluids causing groundwater contamination.  Even absent the EPA study, that’s a claim that may be technically correct but is clearly misleading.

It’s correct if you limit the examination to the act of forcing fluids under pressure into the surrounding rock. It’s incorrect if you consider all of the activity necessary to frack a well, including drilling and casing of wells or transportation, storage and recovery of fluids.

That sort of full-cycle analysis is selectively used by some to discredit “clean” energy sources such as wind, solar and hybrid autos, but seldom applied to conventional energy recovery.

The flash points in discussions of new state regulations have been how public disclosure of fluids will be, when disclosures should be made and the issue of so-called “trade secrets” involving the formulas. In short, industry has argued for less, public advocates have argued for more.

Answers to the timing and transparency issues are clear. Disclosure needs to come prior to fracking activity if it’s to be meaningful and allow any necessary preparation and testing. And transparency would seem to disallow any requirements for confidentiality and reject current practices that allow disclosure only in limited circumstances and to a select audience, especially if you’re the emergency-room nurse in southwestern Colorado who had to wait until she was seriously ill to find out what chemicals she was exposed to while treating a rig worker.

The “trade secrets” issue is just plain silly.

If no one’s been able to crack the Coca Cola formula in the past century despite ingredients being listed in descending order of use on every can, I suspect Haliburton’s secrets would be safe. Even the household chemicals some in the industry use as examples of similar dangers list every ingredient on their labels.

A few months ago, speaking to oil and gas executives in Denver, Gov. John Hickenlooper framed his own opinion on the debate this way:

“The industry needs to be transparent,” he said. “We need to make it easier for the broad population to trust us.”

That’s one way, the logical way, of looking at it.

Those in industry and their supporters, who continue to advance the tired arguments in favor of secrecy and offer what might be technically correct but clearly misleading statements about the safety of the fracking process, there’s this warning about the considerable risk that brings in the court of public opinion.

“We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell,” Oscar Wilde once said.

Transparency offers the industry a way out of the hell its intransigence over disclosure has created. Anything less than a state rules requiring complete and timely disclosure will also call into question the commitment of Gov. Hickenlooper and the Oil and Gas Commission to making certain safety and public protection are as important as efficient energy production.

Jim Spehar hopes for the best when new fracking regulations are announced.  Your comments are welcome at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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