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Is Voluntary Disclosure of Fracking Fluids on the Internet Enough?

Industry says "yes," but environmental groups say voluntary disclosure is insufficient, as national web tool takes shape

By Stacy Feldman

Oct 19, 2010

A coalition of state water regulators is introducing a first-ever national Web tool to post potentially toxic chemicals used in the gas drilling technique of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on the Internet for all to see.

The Okla.-based says its system will allow drillers to publish chemical recipes used in the new wells they have "fracked." Disclosure will be on a voluntary basis only, it said, but the group is optimistic firms will participate.

"My hope is that if we build it, they will use it," Mike Paque, executive director of the council, told SolveClimate News.

The "chemical registry" for fracking is being funded by the U.S. and is expected to launch at the end of November. "No one else is doing anything more progressive," Paque said.

But environmental groups, who fear fracking fluids are causing irreversible damage to groundwater, say anything voluntary is not likely to be enough. 

"The devil is in the details," said Dusty Horwitt, senior counsel at the , a research and advocacy organization. "The fact that it's voluntary raises some concerns about how serious the companies are going to be about making this information available in a way that's useful to the public."

"There has to be a federal minimum standard in place," Horwitt told SolveClimate News.

The three crucial parts of a disclosure policy, he said, will be publication of the "unique identifiers" for each contaminant being pumped into the ground, as assigned by the ; disclosure of toxins before and after wells are fracked; and local visibility.

The information has "got to be in a local newspaper, posted at the site, provided to first responders in the area," Horwitt said. The Web, he continued, will not suffice.

Industry: Voluntary Disclosure Is Enough

Fracking is a drilling method that forces water, sand and sometimes toxic chemicals underground to split layers of shale rock and release the gas.

Over a million wells have been fracked countrywide in the last six decades. As drilling operations boom from New York to Wyoming, several hundred new sites are being fractured at any give time.

All the while, cases of water contamination near drilling wells are piling up.

The chemical composition of fracking fluids can include diesel fuel, benzene — a known carcinogen — methane, industrial solvents and other toxins. But the exact combinations and amounts on a well-by-well basis have been protected by drillers as trade secrets.

Currently, there is no federal regulation of the practice. Congress exempted it from regulation under the national in energy legislation that passed in 2005.

Twin bills in the and , known as the FRAC Act, would lift the exemption and also require disclosure of the chemical mixtures. It has 69 cosponsors in the House and nine in the Senate. But with big Republican gains expected in November, chances of passage are considered slim.

The industry remains adamant that federal laws are not needed and insists there are no proven cases of groundwater contamination from blasting fracking liquids.

In the meantime, the U.S. EPA has waded into the debate.

The agency will begin a scientific review in 2011 into the potential health dangers of fracking. Last month, EPA asked nine leading drillers to voluntarily hand over the names of chemicals they use for its analysis.

EPA told SolveClimate News it expects the firms to comply.

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