It was pretty big news last month when Baker Hughes Corporation, the large Houston-based ($22 billion in annual revenues in 2013) oilfield services company, said it is ready to divulge all the chemicals it uses in hydraulic fracturing.
In a statement posted on its website, Baker Hughes says it “believes it is possible to disclose 100 percent of the chemical ingredients we use in hydraulic fracturing fluids without compromising our formulations — a balance that increases public trust while encouraging commercial innovation.”
This seems like pretty big news. One of the most powerful ways in which the oil and gas industry has made the fracking process unsafe is by refusing to disclose the chemicals used in the fracturing process. The industry claims these chemicals are “trade secrets” that they need to protect in order to preserve the competitive structure of the oil and gas industry.
Because we don’t know what chemicals are used, it is impossible for landowners to know what tests to conduct to determine the purity of their well water. If you don’t know what chemicals are used in the fracking process, you don’t know whether your water has been tainted. And, not coincidentally, you can’t prove in court that fracking was responsible for any contamination.
The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) of 1974 was established to protect America’s drinking water. It authorizes the EPA to set national health-based standards for drinking water to protect against both naturally-occurring and man-made contaminants. The EPA, states, and water systems then work together to make sure that these standards are met.
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempted hydraulic fracturing from SDWA oversight, leaving drinking water sources in the 34 oil and gas producing states unprotected from the toxic chemicals used during fracking. Also known as the Halliburton Loophole, this law turns over control of water quality to the oil and gas companies, and this is why they do not have to tell us what chemicals they use in the fracking process.
How did this happen? No surprise — at the dawn of the modern fracking era, Vice President Cheney chaired President Bush’s Energy Policy Task Force, which recommended fracking be excluded from the SDWA. Congress dutifully followed along.
It is now left to the states to regulate chemical disclosure.
The new disclosures, the company said, would eliminate any trade secret claims about its reports to FracFocus, an industry-backed database that some states use as a clearinghouse for fracturing-fluid data.
It contains data on more than 68,000 U.S. oil and gas well sites.
Last year, a Harvard University study said FracFocus has “serious flaws” because it allows oil producers to withhold information on the fracturing fluids they use, by asserting trade secret exemptions.
And last month, an Energy Department advisory board of engineers and environmentalists concluded FracFocus disclosures hold back too much information, with companies invoking trade-secret exemptions on more than 84 percent of all the registered wells. In Texas, the advisory board noted, more than 5,500 of the 6,400 disclosures invoked a trade secret exemption between last June and March.
Baker Hughes says its new data format will calm those concerns, as it will include in its newly formatted reports a complete analysis of its fluid mixtures, down to tiny trace elements of ammonium hydroxide.
A start, but don’t get too excited
This is certainly a step in the right direction, but the battle for chemical disclosure is far from over. It’s not clear how much information Baker Hughes is actually going to disclose. A sentence buried in the company’s announcement makes it clear the industry isn’t going to be reformed overnight. Baker Hughes said it will provide complete lists of the products and chemical ingredients used in frack fluids “where accepted by our customers and relevant governmental authorities.”
In other words, if their customers, who are drilling companies, and individual states, which are often in the pockets of the oil and gas industry, don’t want them to disclose, they won’t.
The bottom line here is that if we wait for the oil and gas industry to regulate itself, we’re all going to be drinking a lot of strontium.
What needs to happen to solve the problem of non-disclosure is the Halliburton Loophole should be repealed. There’s no chance of tha in the near term, so we need Montana to follow the lead of Wyoming, which is inching its way toward full disclosure after decades of being poisoned by oil and gas.
Oil and Gas Industry exempted from most major environmental legislation
More on federal loopholes: How the Clean Air Act enables polluters in Wyoming
Hydraulic fracturing and water contamination
The four ways hydraulic fracturing contaminates water
Act now to protect your water
A report from the water testing seminar in Lewistown, MT
A personal story: John Fenton, Pavillion, Wyoming
A personal story: Linda Monson, Yellowstone River southwest of Williston, North Dakota