California bill would reveal chemicals used in "fracking" process
A bill forcing oil and gas companies to reveal what chemicals they use when using hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," to extract natural gas in California passed the California Senate Natural Resources Committee earlier this month and is set to go before the Environmental Quality Committee next week.
Hydraulic fracturing involves injecting rock formations with high-pressure water, sand and a combination of chemicals, to release tightly-packed hydrocarbons. It is used in the Monterey Shale Formation, which extends from Northern California to the Los Angeles area, including Kern, Ventura, Orange and Santa Barbara counties; it is also used in the Rocky Mountain West, Midwest, East Coast, Texas and Louisiana.
There is no law in California requiring companies to publically disclose a list of all chemicals pumped in the ground during the fracking process. They include benzene, hydrochloric acid, formaldehyde and methanol.
Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski’s bill, AB 591, aims to change that. The bill is part of the growing trend of states, including Wyoming, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Texas, that have approved or are in the process of approving legislation requiring companies to disclose where fracking occurs, how much water is used in the process and what chemicals are pumped into the ground, due to the fear that toxic materials could potentially contaminate water aquifers.
Currently there is no evidence linking the technique to water contamination. Wells are lined with steel and cement to protect, but environmental groups say the risk of fracking is connected to numerous "fraccidents" across the country, and have the potential to harm more than just drinking water.
EarthJustice, an environmental law group based in Oakland, estimates that 70 hydraulic fracturing accidents have occured in recent years, the majority taking place in the Marcellus Shale -- the biggest natural gas fracking area in the U.S., which includes large parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York. Earlier this year, Chesapeake Energy equipment erupted in flames outside Philadelphia, letting out thousands of gallons of highly toxic chemicals, which spilled in a trout stream and forced seven families to evacuate their homes.
“We’re trying to get in front of the issue,” said Jeff Barbosa, spokesman for Wieckowski. “In California, there is no disclosure at all. This bill would disclose the chemicals being used, and give us a better understanding of where the chemicals are injected.”
Laws in Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Texas do not require companies to disclose chemical ingredients if they are deemed “trade secrets.” But this bill, along with a bill in Wyoming, requires the disclosure of all chemicals used in wells, and a state website will be easier to navigate and will map the wells. FrackFocus.org, a national disclosure website, requires users to know the name of the operator, the API number, the county and the well name.
Wieckowski’s legislative staff said Frackfocus.org takes its information from Material Safety Data Sheets, documents that the group says often provide flawed and inaccurate information, while excluding information about hazardous chemicals that are part of a trade-secreted formula. It sometimes uses a family name for chemicals or just says “proprietary.”
The California bill could help residents and officials dealing with chemicals in groundwater, by giving them a database of chemicals used nearby.
Environmentalists are pushing for a national database.
In response to oil and gas companies’ concerns about trade secrets, the bill would not require companies such as Venoco Inc., Occidental Petroleum Corp and Canadian Natural Resources Limited, all of which engage in fracking in California, to disclose the amount of chemicals used.
“Some companies feel the combo of chemicals is a competitive issue and should be proprietary and confidential information,” said Tupper Hull, spokesman for the Western State Petroleum Assn., an industry trade group.
Releasing the concentration of chemicals would be releasing the “actual recipe, which is a competitive issue between companies. If a company feels it has a process to produce oil more efficiently and at less cost, that’s in their interest [to keep it confidential] and in the interest of consumers.”
Hull said oil and gas companies are supporting this bill, and industry leaders have been working closely with Wieckowski to craft legislation both parties can support. Some companies have volunteeered to list chemicals and their maximum concentration on FrackFocus.org.
Hydraulic fracturing has been around since the 1940s but was a relatively uncommon practice until the past decade or so, largely pushed by energy services company Halliburton, led by then-Chief Executive Dick Cheney. During the Bush-Cheney administrations, oil lobbyists were been able to exempt fracking from federal water regulations because it was such an unexplored technique.
Last year the EPA requested nine energy companies to hand over a list of chemicals used, locations, standard operating procedures for the method, and any data on environmental effects on human health. The push came amid documented cases of drinking-water wells becoming contaminated near sites where fracking was taking place.
“We don’t presume there is a risk,” Hull said of the chemicals, which the industry has said are mostly non-hazardous and only make up of less than 1% of the solution volume. “But there is a desire to disclose how often fracking is taking place, where it is taking place and what materials are being used.”
Photos: 1. A natural gas well in Wyoming, where Halliburton has used hydraulic fracturing to extractd natural gas. Credit: Anacleto Rapping/Los Angeles Times. 2. Map of Monterey Shale Formation Credit: USGS 3. The movie "Gasland," nominated for an Oscar, chronicles the hazards of fracking. Credit: HBO.