Hydraulic fracturing, an increasingly common method of extracting natural gas that involves shooting a concoction of water, sand and chemicals deep underground, has sparked controversy around the country — not least because drillers mostly keep their chemical formulas secret. But Texas, the leading gas-producing state, could help change industry practices by requiring public disclosure of the chemicals used.
A bill filed this month by state Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, who chairs the House Committee on Energy Resources, would create a website containing information about the chemicals used in each well. The bill has won praise from both industry and major environmental organizations including the Sierra Club, the Texas League of Conservation Voters and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).
"EDF believes that passage of this bill would create the nation's strongest disclosure system," said Scott Anderson, an Austin-based senior policy adviser to the group's energy program. By embracing mandatory disclosure, he added, gas companies "have the opportunity to demonstrate to the public that the industry is no longer trying to hide the ball."
David Blackmon, the Texas state committee chairman for America's Natural Gas Alliance, said that while some details need adjusting, most companies in his group have reacted positively to the bill as a way to address the widespread concerns — misplaced, the industry asserts — about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. "You have to maintain the faith of the public to stay in business," Blackmon said. Houston-based Southwestern Energy, an oil and gas developer and member of the gas alliance, is among the only individual companies that have explicitly stated support for the bill.
Some homeowners living above shale-gas formations like the Barnett Shale in North Texas say that drillers engaged in hydraulic fracturing have contaminated their water supplies. The gas industry counters that fracking takes place too far below aquifers for contamination to occur, and that chemicals compose less than 1 percent by volume of fracking fluids, which are mostly water and sand. But environmentalists say that fracking can pose risks depending on the depth and type of rock, and that poor construction of the gas wells themselves can also result in leakage of the chemicals, some of which may be toxic.
Ramona Nye, a spokeswoman for the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas, said that there "have been no documented cases of groundwater pollution caused by hydraulic fracturing in Texas." (However, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Railroad Commission are currently involved in a standoff regarding the cause of contamination in two Barnett Shale water wells.) Nye said the commission already gets a form with information on the amount and kind of material at each well and posts it on the commission website, but companies need not name specific chemicals. A list of the chemicals, however, is provided to each site for the benefit of employees and emergency first responders, per requirements from the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration, Nye said.
Keffer said his bill was modeled on a similar rule in Arkansas. That rule took effect in January, though it will have less trans-industry impact than a Texas rule would. Several other states are also instituting fracking disclosure requirements. Since September, Wyoming has required drillers to provide well-by-well information that is then listed on a regulatory website. Colorado mandated chemical disclosures in 2009, though the information is available to regulators (and medical personnel) only if they ask for it, and not to the general public. In February, Pennsylvania changed its rules to require disclosure of well-specific chemical information, which the public can request.
Blackmon said Texas legislation could provide a blueprint for other states.
Federal legislation introduced in Congress would require disclosure of fracking chemicals. But Anderson of EDF said the Texas legislation is stronger than those proposals. Two Oklahoma-based groups, the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, a multi-state government organization, and the nonprofit Ground Water Protection Council, are also working to create a voluntary internet registry of wellhead disclosure information that could be ready by April. Keffer said that with the industry already making voluntary disclosures, the timing seemed right to move forward with his bill.
Both sides want changes in the legislation. Blackmon said drillers want clearer liability protection — in case, for example, a company that manufactures fracking fluid makes an error in the information it provides to the driller. Environmentalists want to make sure that a special provision in the bill allowing some deference to "trade secrets" is not abused. Cyrus Reed, the conservation director for the Sierra Club's Lone Star chapter, also noted that disclosure would not resolve other drilling-related concerns like air pollution.
Sharon Wilson, a prominent drilling critic in the Barnett Shale area, has come out against the bill this week in a blog post for the mining reform group Earthworks. She said the required disclosures are inadequate and that landowners should be given notice that the information is available.
Keffer hopes for a hearing for his bill in early April and said state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, will carry it in the Senate.