Cumberland Times-News

Local News

November 30, 2012

Fracking secrets keep Americans clueless

WASHINGTON — A subsidiary of Nabors Industries Ltd. 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. That means they’re exempt from disclosure.

Drilling companies in Texas, the biggest oil-and-natural gas producing state, claimed similar exemptions about 19,000 times this year through August, according to their chemical-disclosure reports. Data from the documents were compiled by Pivot Upstream Group, a Houston-based firm that studies the energy industry, and analyzed by Bloomberg News.

Nationwide, companies withheld one out of every five chemicals they used in fracking, a separate examination of a broader database shows.

Trade-secret exemptions block information on more than five ingredients for every well in Texas, undermining the statute’s purpose of informing people about chemicals that are hauled through their communities and injected thousands of feet beneath their homes and farms, said Lon Burnam, a Democratic state representative and a co-author of the law.

“This disclosure bill has a hole big enough to drive a Mack truck through,” Burnam said of the law, which he called “much compromised legislation.”

“Is it meaningless because there are so many exemptions?” he said. “I’m afraid it may be.”

The Texas disclosure bill marks a growing effort by the oil and gas industry to address public concerns about fracking, a drilling technique in which millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are pumped underground to free up more hydrocarbons. While the method has unlocked vast new sources of energy, safety questions center on the hundreds of chemicals used — many of them known carcinogens.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has little authority to regulate fracking; Congress decided in 2005 that the bureau wouldn’t oversee the practice.

The 2010 documentary film “Gasland” showed homeowners near fracked wells igniting the water that flowed from their faucets. A year later, the EPA linked fracking to contaminated drinking water in Pavillion, Wyo. The agency is retesting the Wyoming wells. A separate report from the U.S. Geological Survey this year confirmed the environmental agency’s initial finding; it detected levels of methane, ethane, diesel compounds and phenol, which the EPA had identified in 2011.

Companies — including Halliburton — have embraced the Texas law as a model that “provides an enormous amount of information to the general public” while protecting trade secrets from competitors, said Susie McMichael, a company spokeswoman.

“Without such protection, companies would have no incentive to develop and put into use new technologies that are both environmentally beneficial and more effective,” McMichael said in an email.

In August, the largest well-servicing companies that worked in Texas withheld the most information about frack jobs. Wells serviced by Halliburton and Houston-based Baker Hughes Inc., the second- and third-largest oilfield services companies respectively, contained more than nine secrets per well according to reports filed by the companies.

Frack jobs by Superior Well Services, the Nabors subsidiary, omitted the most information with more than 32 secrets per well.

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.

“We can’t test to see what is coming into the environment,” said Briggle, 35, who also works as an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of North Texas in Denton. “If frack fluids are so harmless, why do they hold onto these trade secrets so strongly?”

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