As of last year, Texas has a law that requires fracking companies to reveal the chemicals used in their fracking fluids. Unless that fracking fluid is considered a “trade secret” by the fracking company, which, surprise surprise, companies have claimed 19,000 times in the first eight months of this year.
A subsidiary of Nabors Industries Ltd. (NBR) pumped a mixture of chemicals identified only as “EXP- F0173-11” into a half-dozen oil wells in rural Karnes County, Texas, in July.
Few people outside Nabors, the largest onshore drilling contractor by revenue, know exactly what’s in that blend. This much is clear: One ingredient, an unidentified solvent, can cause damage to the kidney and liver, according to safety information about the product that Michigan state regulators have on file.
A year-old Texas law that requires drillers to disclose chemicals they pump underground during hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” was powerless to compel transparency for EXP- F0173-11. The solvent and several other ingredients in the product are considered a trade secret by Superior Well Services, the Nabors subsidiary.
While the ability of fracking companies to hide their ingredients is not a new problem, the Texas law demonstrates its extent. The specific makeup of fracking fluid is one of the innovations that led to the current shale gas boom; it’s justifiable — in the respect that fracking can be justified — to claim that the combination of chemicals is proprietary information. The question that arises is how to balance that secrecy with public health. (A possible solution: Ban all fracking everywhere! This solution is unlikely to be adopted.)
For neighbors of fracked wells, the omissions mean they can’t use the disclosures to watch for frack fluids migrating into creeks, rivers and aquifers, because they don’t know what to look for, says Adam Briggle, who is chairman of a citizen’s group in Denton, Texas, called the Denton Stakeholder Drilling Advisory Group. …
The 19,000 trade-secret claims made in Texas this year through August hid information that included descriptions of ingredients as well as identification numbers and concentrations of the chemicals used. Overall, oil and gas companies withheld information on about one out of every seven ingredients they pumped into 3,639 wells.
And you will not be surprised to learn who thinks the legislation is just perfect as is.
Recently, more states are following the Texas model — with an assist from industry. In December 2011, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a Washington-based public policy organization that brings together corporations and legislators to craft bills for states, adopted model legislation that is almost identical to the Texas rule.
The model bill was sponsored inside ALEC by Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM), which also advises the council from a seat on its “private enterprise board,” according to ALEC documents obtained by Common Cause, a nonprofit group in Washington.
ALEC has long-standing ties to the fossil fuel industry, so this shouldn’t be a surprise. Nor should Exxon’s interest in protecting fracking; the company has made a big bet on natural gas.
Internationally, The Wall Street Journal reports, fracking isn’t catching on, due to a combination of shale locations and availability of technology. Exxon itself killed a project in Poland after deciding that drilling wasn’t worth it. That is good news for the rest of the world — but bad news for the United States, which becomes both a laboratory experiment and a deeply profitable business venture.
After all, there’s a massive windfall trapped in that shale. And it’s far cheaper to seek forgiveness via an eventual class-action suit than it is to seek permission by providing full information.