As President Obama catches up, at least rhetorically, with drilling critics who have pushed for public disclosure of hydraulic fracturing chemicals, activists are stressing that disclosure is not enough.
In his State of the Union address last night, Obama said he would implement a proposal bouncing around the Interior Department since 2010 to require drillers to publicly disclose the chemicals used when fracturing on public land (E&E Daily, Jan. 25). It was the only specific action he mentioned about how he would develop the country's vast store of natural gas in shale formations "without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk."
But activists stress that disclosure alone does not protect health and safety. Once the chemicals are known, they say, officials should move to make sure they are regulated, some would say banned.
"I can't point to any community where that's saved lives," said Sandra Steingraber, an ecologist at Ithaca College, speaking at a conference earlier this month in the Washington area on drilling and public health.
At the same conference, Kathleen Hoke Dachille of the Network for Public Health Law pointed to U.S. EPA's Toxics Release Inventory, saying it has been helpful but "not transformative."
"Disclosure is necessary, but not sufficient," Dachille, director of the network's Eastern region, said in an interview. "Detection is not prevention."
Such sentiments are likely to rekindle suspicions in the oil and gas industry that disclosure is a Trojan horse in its persistent conflict with environmental groups.
"This isn't the first time these folks have moved the goal posts on us, and we're not naive enough to think it'll be the last," said Chris Tucker of the industry group Energy in Depth. "The bottom line here, at least for some of these groups, is that they don't want us to produce the resource, plain and simple."
Industry as a whole has moved grudgingly toward disclosure in the last few years, slowly giving up some of its concerns about revealing trade secrets.
While disclosure has gained acceptance among some companies and state regulators, actual public disclosure remains in its infancy. There is still no database of well-by-well fracturing chemicals that allows researchers to search by chemical or easily see how often a chemical has been used. In many states, public disclosure remains voluntary.
The industry-preferred method of disclosure, a website called FracFocus.org, included lists of chemicals used for 5,200 wells as of October. Operators could upload the data from any well "fracked" after Jan. 1, 2011. But more than 30,000 wells had been drilled in the United States through October (E&ENews PM, Oct. 21, 2011).
Disclosure requirements in Colorado and Texas have yet to go into effect. Colorado starts in April and Texas starts in February. Wyoming has required disclosure since September 2010.
After all the political fights over disclosure, there is little mention of the chemicals actually listed, which include diesel fuel and other carcinogens.
Some participants in the disclosure debate say scant mention of chemicals reflect that the fracturing process presents less danger to water sources than many have imagined and points to the folly of industry resistance. Others say that drilling companies may ultimately decide there is little difference between highly touted kinds of fracturing fluid. But fracturing critics say concern will grow as researchers are able to search and aggregate the data.
An Obama administration advisory panel at the Department of Energy issued a report last year supporting public disclosure of fracturing chemicals as a way to reassure the public. Members found little chance that high-pressure fracturing injections of chemical-laced water would force toxic chemicals through miles of rock to the surface but brushed aside arguments against public disclosure (Greenwire, Oct. 31, 2011).
In November, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he was unable to confirm whether hydraulic rules would be released before the 2012 elections (E&ENews PM, Nov. 16, 2011).
Interior officials have said they want to gather more data from FracFocus.org but also want to create a database that has more than just data from drilling on public lands. The new rules could also include requirements for drillers to provide more information about how they will dispose of wastewater from drilling on public lands.