Last week a coalition of environmental organizations, landowners and public health advocates petitioned the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation (BOGC) to provide broader public disclosure of information about the chemicals used in fracking.
The coalition, represented by the non-profit environmental law firm Earthjustice and led by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Montana Environmental Information Center, requested the changes to BOGC rules to ensure that Montana citizens who live and farm near fracking operations have access to chemical information they need to safeguard their property, health, and environment.
Montana law gives citizens the right to petition state agencies such as the BOGC to request amendments to agency regulations. The petition will be presented at the BOGC’s August 11 meeting in Billings, after which the agency will have 60 days to take action.
Why this is important
The current BOGC rules related to chemical disclosure were established in 2011. They require disclosure of chemicals used in fracking after a well is drilled, and allow operators to keep confidential any chemical information they claim to be a trade secret.
These rules put Montanans at a considerable disadvantage in protecting themselves from possible harm from oil and gas drilling for two important reasons:
- If water contamination occurs during drilling and a landowner tries to prove legal liability for damage, the law requires that the water be tested before and after drilling occurs. If contamination is caused by drilling, the landowner must prove that contaminating chemicals in the water were not present in the baseline testing conducted before drilling occurs. To conduct appropriate baseline testing, the landowner needs to know what chemicals to test for. Without prior knowledge of the chemicals to be used in drilling, the landowner could do everything possible to protect his water, but fail to test for the specific chemicals that are used. (Related: Report from the water testing seminar in Lewistown)
- The current rules allow operators to keep secret the identity of any chemical used in fracking by designating it a “trade secret.” There is no independent review of these exclusions — companies can independently decide what chemicals they do not disclose. By contrast, Wyoming changed its rules in 2015 to require an independent review by the Wyoming Oil and Gas Commission of any chemical a company seeks to keep secret.
These are common sense reforms that would protect landowners from potential harm. As Katherine O’Brien, the Earthjustice attorney who drafted the petition on behalf of the coalition put it, “Montanans have the right to know what is being pumped into the ground around their homes, farms, and ranches.”
Reaction in Montana
The press reaction to these proposed changes has been strongly positive. In an August 2 editorial, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle declared:
“Think about this: Would we even allow natural resource extraction companies to dump hazardous chemicals into our lakes or rivers? Or would we allow them to spew toxic pollution into the air without any restrictions?
“And yet somehow it’s just fine to allow them to pump these pollutants deep into the earth and we’re not even allowed to know what they are. It’s a testament to the lobbyists for the oil and gas companies that they were able to persuade state and federal legislators to enact laws that protect the firms from revealing these chemicals.”
Reaction of the oil and gas industry
The oil and gas industry is determined to oppose any change in rules. In a recent guest editorial in the Sidney Herald, Jessica Sena, a frequent spokesperson for the industry whose dog and pony show we have already seen along the Beartooth Front, lays out a position that she could have written in her sleep: the 2011 disclosure rules are just fine, and besides, fracking is completely safe because there is “no evidence of ‘fracking’ fluids permeating the thousands of feet of bedrock which separate frac zones and drinking water acquirers.”
Regular readers of this site will recognize this statement as the oil and gas industry’s great lie. They take a single type of water contamination that is almost impossible to prove, and for which the industry has stonewalled government attempts to prove, and say that contamination never occurs.
She trots out all the tired old industry standards: the Lisa Jackson quote, and comparing the fracking industry need for trade secrets to KFC and Coca-Cola, both of which long ago joined the 21st century by releasing their “secret” formulas.
This is complete and total nonsense, and Sena should be ashamed to trot out the same old antiquated arguments.
Scientific studies prove impacts of fracking
Here is the scientific proof about the relationship between fracking and its impacts on air, water and community health.
Since the fracking/horizontal drilling boom began in the United States began about ten years ago, it has taken science time to catch up with our experience. But it is catching up. When Montana disclosure rules were set up in 2011, there were almost no peer-reviewed scientific studies on water and public health impacts caused by fracking. But since that time, there have been at least 685 papers published in peer-reviewed journals regarding the impacts of oil and gas drilling.
Of these studies:
- 84% of public health studies contain findings that indicate public health hazards, elevated risks, or adverse health outcomes
- 69% of water quality studies contain findings that indicate potential, positive association, or actual incidence of water contamination
- 87% of air quality studies contain findings that indicate elevated air pollutant emissions and/or atmospheric concentrations
The oil and gas industry undoubtedly knows this data, yet chooses to lie to the public about the impact of drilling.
The BOGC needs to act
We have often discussed the inadequacies of the Board of Oil and Gas Conservation on this site. It is not serving the people of Montana and is in need of substantive reform.
Last summer the BOGC was presented with another rulemaking petition, on minimum distances, or setbacks, of wellheads from occupied buildings. Despite the fact that most oil and gas producing states, including Wyoming and North Dakota, have minimum setback rules, the BOGC decided to require only notification of property owners, not minimum setbacks, leaving Montana far behind other states in protecting its citizens.
The new rules proposed in the fracking disclosure petition are reasonable, they are in line with what neighboring states are doing, and they do not impose an undue burden on industry. The BOGC needs to act to protect Montanans.