Push for Fracking Fluid Disclosure May Slow Thanks to New Political Landscape

Disclosure is fast becoming the watchword in the debate surrounding hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Environmentalists have long wanted natural gas drillers to come clean on the chemicals that make up their fracking fluids. Recently, some states have enacted laws requiring such disclosure, and even the federal government has pushed drillers on that front. But now, some fear that recent political developments could stifle some of the momentum that has been building towards better fracking fluid disclosure.

Fracking involves injecting water, sand, and a cocktail of chemicals at high pressure into rock formations thousands of feet below the surface to release gas deposits buried deep in shale. Thanks to a move by Congress in 2005, fracking is exempt from federal regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act – deemed by fracking opponents the “Halliburton Loophole.” As a result, drillers don’t have to disclose the chemicals that make up their fracking fluids.

Those chemicals are cause for concern. They may include, among other things, barium, strontium, benzene, glycol-ethers, toluene, 2-(2-methoxyethoxy) ethanol, and nonylphenols. All have been linked to health disorders when human exposure is too high.

According to a ProPublica report, the past year has seen a push for more disclosure. Wyoming, for example, has started requiring drillers to list the name and concentration of each of the chemicals used in each well. In Pennsylvania, which lies in the heart of the natural gas rich Marcellus shale, similar rules have been written, but still must be approved by the state legislature.

Disclosure has also featured prominently in the federal government’s fracking agenda, according to ProPublica. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the House Energy and Commerce Committee both initiated investigations and sought such information from the industry. Halliburton Co., which refused the EPA’s request, was hit with a subpoena late last year. In November, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar raised the prospect of requiring chemical disclosure from drillers on federal lands.

Now though, the momentum for more disclosure may ebb, thanks to the results of the November mid-term elections. According to ProPublica, following Salazar’s statements on disclosure, Reps. Joe Barton, R-Texas, and Fred Upton, R-Mich., — who is the incoming chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee — sent Salazar a letter warning that a “rush to regulate” fracking would “chill domestic oil and gas development. The letter suggested that Upton would not continue aggressive oversight of fracking, ProPublica said.

On the state level, some states will inaugurate governors friendly to the fracking industry. New Mexico’s governor-elect Susana Martinez, for example, has already stated she may seek to loosen a rule that requires drillers to use synthetic liners in their waste pits, saying that “unnecessary and burdensome regulations” have costs jobs and impeded growth, ProPublica reported.

In Pennsylvania, governor-elect Tom Corbett has chosen several prominent lobbyists who represent Marcellus shale drilling firms to serve on a committee advising him on energy and environmental issues. As we’ve reported previously, Corbett’s campaign received more than $1 million in donations from natural gas drillers. He is firmly opposed to any attempt to slap a gas-extraction tax on the industry, which means Pennsylvania will remain the largest gas-drilling state without such a tax. Corbett has also promised to lift an existing order that prevents further leasing of state lands to gas drillers.

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