In fracking debate, 'disclosure' is in the eye of the beholder

In the intense but inscrutable debate about the chemicals that drillers inject underground to flush out natural gas, this much can be said: Everyone is for disclosure.

But there's no agreement on what "disclosure" means when it comes to the oil and gas process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. And that means they disagree on nearly everything.

Fracturing -- vital to extracting gas from shale formations -- involves injecting tanker-loads of water and sand into a gas well to blow apart the rock and release the gas. A small fraction of that concoction is a mixture of chemicals as mundane as ice cream thickener and as toxic as benzene.

Worried that those chemicals could contaminate groundwater, environmentalists, community groups and some Democratic lawmakers are demanding detailed, well-by-well information about the type of chemicals that drillers inject. And they want it put on the Internet for all to see.

"Disclosure would shine a light and encourage companies to use less toxic chemicals," said Amy Mall, an analyst who works on fracturing issues for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It gives individuals the ability to know what's being used."


Companies say they, too, are for full disclosure of the ingredients, but only to state regulators and medical personnel willing to sign confidentiality agreements. Making public detailed lists of chemical constituents, they say, gives away valuable trade secrets. And they see the drive for disclosure as a stalking horse for harsh new restrictions on drilling that would bog down gas production in the United States.

"Our position is, 'We do support it.' It's a question of what legal channel you're using to get disclosure," said Chris Tucker, a spokesman for Energy in Depth, an industry group formed to fight federal regulation of fracturing. "But we believe there's a lot more information out there than you think right now."

The vastly different interpretations of disclosure could lead to confusion among policy makers as they get into the weeds of climate and energy bills. Some Democrats in Congress have stepped up their efforts to regulate fracturing under federal law as Congress prepares for an end-of-session rush of energy legislating.

The Senate climate bill authored by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) would order fracturing companies to post the worker-safety documents for the chemicals on the Internet (E&E Daily, May 12).

In the House, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) has pending legislation to rescind fracturing's exemption from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Her bill (H.R. 2766) would also require companies to tell regulators the "chemical constituents" in their fracturing fluid, but not the formula for how those chemicals are mixed together. The legislation would order regulators to make those ingredients public by publishing them on the Internet.

At a recent hearing, DeGette proposed an amendment that would have included the disclosure portion of her bill. She then withdrew it, saying she planned to negotiate the issue further with industry representatives (Greenwire, May 26).

Many industry executives say they support full disclosure. But they don't believe that means a well-by-well list of the chemicals injected underground.

For example, Chesapeake Energy Chairman and CEO Aubrey McClendon shook up the industry last year with a call for transparency.

"We as an industry need to demystify [hydraulic fracturing]," McClendon told an energy conference in September. "We need to disclose the chemicals that we are using and search for alternatives to the chemicals we are using" (Greenwire, Oct. 1, 2009).

But Chesapeake doesn't have a policy mandating disclosure to the public of the chemicals used in each well. Company spokesman Jim Gipson noted that the ingredients are listed in the worker-safety documents called "material safety data sheets," or MSDS, posted at each well site. In addition, the company has listed "typical" fracturing ingredients on its website.

"As an operating company that obtains fracturing services from a number of different vendors, we have disclosed what we can," Gipson said. "I don't know much more that we can do."

Debate over data sheets

The industry firmly agrees that MSDS documents amount to full disclosure, though some oil and gas industry representatives don't like being singled out with an order to post them online.

"Easily the most mischaracterized and misunderstood element of the debate over hydraulic fracturing, some in Congress seem to believe that the slight percentages of chemical additives found in the water- and sand-based fracturing solution are secret -- and further, that industry continues to resist the disclosure of these elements," Lee Fuller, executive director of Energy in Depth, wrote to lawmakers in March. "Neither assertion is true" (E&E Daily, March 24).

Fuller, who is also vice president of government relations at the Independent Petroleum Association of America, continued, "The materials used in the fracturing process are widely disclosed. At every well site in America where chemicals are present, you'll find a detailed listing of those materials printed and maintained on Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), which are mandated by the federal government. MSDS are searchable online. Additionally, several states and industry organizations, such as Energy in Depth, have provided information on their websites describing the kinds of additives used in the fracturing process, as well as their purpose."

Exxon Mobil Corp. cited the MSDS documents in fending off a stockholder proposal demanding more information about fracturing. The company said "there is public disclosure" of chemicals at fracturing sites because the MSDS are posted on-site. The board of directors also said that the chemicals used can be found on the company's websites. The stockholder proposal was voted down in May (E&ENews PM, May 26).

Halliburton, a major provider of services for the oil and gas industry, posts MSDS for each of its products on its website, but does not list where the products have been used. Another large servicer, BJ Services, does not post the MSDS on its website.

The MSDS documents are what the Kerry-Lieberman climate and energy bill orders posted to the Internet, saying that will "provide adequate information for the public and State and local authorities."

But the NRDC's Mall said the information on the worker safety documents isn't adequate. They lack crucial information, she said, namely, the ingredients of fracturing fluids.

"Bottom line, they don't have all the information," Mall said. "They're certainly not sufficient to inform a landowner worried his water has been polluted."

MSDS are designed for workplace safety, not the protection or monitoring of groundwater. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires the sheets to be posted in workplaces so employees and employers understand the hazards of the chemicals they're working with.

Additionally, MSDS are not public records kept on file by federal officials. Instead, the companies are required to maintain the records for 30 years. And manufacturers don't have to disclose chemical ingredients if they're a trade secret.

The MSDS documents are online only if the company decides to post them. If pollution were found years after well was fractured, there's no guarantee in some states that authorities would have a list of the chemicals used.

For example, Halliburton's website includes the MSDS for "frac fluid with additives" among the data sheets for all of its other products. Nowhere on the sheet does it list what the additives are. The sheet lists no chemical ingredients. Its toxicity and carcinogenicity are listed as "not determined." A bottle of Coca-Cola, by comparison, lists at least one chemical, phosphoric acid.

Halliburton spokeswoman Teresa Wong said the MSDS "does not list any specific chemical ingredients because the product contains no hazardous substances."

Another MSDS for Halliburton's HAI-OS acid inhibitor lists chemicals, methanol and propargyl alcohol, which are often found in antifreeze. Workplace safety rules say workers should not be exposed to more than 1 part per million of propargyl alcohol during an eight-hour work shift.

Omitting details

Some environmentalists question the assertion that all fracturing chemicals are disclosed in MSDS documents.

The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, an environmental group that has been highly critical of fracturing and gas production methods, assembled the names of 435 fracturing chemicals and determined that only 36 percent of them had no MSDS documents. Of the 282 that did have MSDS, three listed no ingredients, while 32 disclosed more than 95 percent of the product ingredients. Also, the group said, the sheets don't have to be submitted to regulators for verification.

Even when companies list fracturing fluid ingredients on their websites, they sometimes omit key details.

On its website, Energy in Depth lists one of the most controversial ingredients in fracturing simply as "petroleum distillate," which, the site notes, is used in "Make-up remover, laxatives, and candy." Chesapeake's site says it is "Used in cosmetics including hair, make-up, nail and skin products." Some distillates are also used to make candy like gummy bears.

But "petroleum distillates" are essentially anything distilled from crude oil. According to a guide produced by Purdue University and EPA, they can also include flammable toxins and carcinogens like naphthalene, benzene and kerosene.

Chesapeake's Gipson said his company's chart refers to "aliphatic hydrocarbons." That can include methane, propane and kerosene. He said the company used the more generic term because that is what is generally listed on MSDS documents.

Range Resources, whose chairman, John Pinkerton, also called for disclosure last year, has a somewhat more expansive view of disclosure than most other companies.

"We'll list specific quantities," said Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella. "You know exactly what we're using and how much."

The company distributes a fact sheet that lists the amounts of chemicals it uses. For example, the chart indicates that the company uses methanol or propargyl, "diluted at two gallons per 1,000 gallons of water."

But the chart notes that "individual wells may vary based on geologic and other conditions," and it offers no way for a neighbor to find out specifically what chemicals were used in a nearby well.

East vs. West

Fracturing has been an important drilling technique for decades in conventional drilling, often used to increase production from a well or flush the remnants out of an old well.

But it is the only way to extract gas from concrete-like shale formations like the Marcellus Shale, which runs through Appalachia from West Virginia to New York. The vast shale reserves found there have brought drillers to places like Pennsylvania and New York, where residents aren't as comfortable with drilling as Westerners and are less hostile to regulation.

Over the years, state regulators' methods of handling disclosure have evolved in very different ways. Regulators mix and match from different layers of disclosure and the different constituencies allowed access to the information.

Wyoming's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission decided earlier this month to order drillers to report the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing to commission staff, the first such requirement in the nation. But the measure specifically shields the information from the public. Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) directed the agency to draft the rules as a way to assure federal officials that Wyoming adequately regulates fracturing (Greenwire, June 9).

Colorado, which overhauled its oil and gas laws in 2007, requires companies to maintain a well-by-well chemical inventory for the life of the well plus five years. Companies don't have to file the list with state regulators, but are required to provide it to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission if asked. The agency can share the information with health officials, or a treating physician, subject to a confidentiality agreement. The inventory can be shared more broadly if the company does not request trade secret protection.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection requires MSDS to be attached to every drilling plan, said Tom Rathbun, spokesman for the agency, and be available to landowners, local governments and emergency responders.

The agency posts online a list of the chemicals each major company uses in fracturing, but those relying on it might still want to do more homework.

The agency's website notes that one of the chemicals BJ Services uses is "hydrotreated light distillate." The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Household Products Database lists hydrotreated light distillate as a synonym for kerosene.

There is disagreement among different regulators and company officials on the value of posting "typical" or even company-by-company information on websites, as opposed to a well-by-well inventory of chemicals.

Pennsylvania's Rathbun said that each company uses the same ingredients in each of its wells. But Chesapeake's Gipson said the chemicals used vary between each site, and are often changed as the crews fracture the wells. And Range's Pitzarella said, "In some instances, you may not know specific amounts until you're doing it."

'Foot in the door for EPA'?

Energy in Depth's Tucker said the group's members wouldn't necessarily oppose calls for additional disclosure, but that efforts to impose those requirements as part of the Safe Drinking Water Act are a non-starter for drillers -- suggesting that production could be shut down for months or years while U.S. EPA writes regulations.

"The question isn't the level of disclosure, it's the venue," Tucker said.

But Tucker maintains that the ultimate goal of those who say they want more disclosure is strict federal regulation and the curbing of gas production in the United States.

"I don't think the NRDC is spending millions on this because they want a a longer inventory sheet," Tucker said.

The NRDC's Mall said she doesn't see disclosure driving more regulation, because the broad range of chemicals is already public.

"Industry is portraying it as a foot in the door for EPA," Mall said. "But asking for disclosure is not part of a strategy to get more regulation."

Click here to read Purdue University and EPA's guide to chemicals.

Click here to read the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection's list of chemicals major companies use in fracturing.

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