Editorial: California must insist on full disclosure of chemicals used in oil and gas 'fracking'

12/23/2012 12:00 AM

01/14/2013 1:54 PM

For decades in California, energy companies have used a method called hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," to extract deposits of oil and natural gas from deep underground. The process involves injecting pressurized water, sand and chemical additives into a wellbore to fracture the rock formations to get at the fossil fuels.

The oil industry lauds hydraulic fracturing for unlocking enormous amounts of domestic gas and oil. In a recent letter to The Bee, Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, said that this process "has been employed in California for 60 years and there has never been evidence that it has caused harm to water supplies or the environment."

Reheis-Boyd's unflinching confidence reminds us of chemical industry claims that DDT was safe in the 1950s or oil industry claims in the 1990s that MTBE, a gasoline additive, was safe. After all, if something has been used widely for many years, it can't be harmful, right?

The reality is, with fracking, we just don't know. The process has been little studied in California and nationwide by independent scientists. Only now is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launching a truly independent study of how fracking could affect drinking water supplies. The EPA released a progress report on that study last week, and hopes to have some firmer results next year, assuming the oil industry allows it to study a site before and after fracking.

Here in the Golden State, the stakes couldn't be higher. California is the nation's third-largest producer of oil, and is home to the largest oil shale formation in the continental United States – the Monterey Shale. Oil companies are preparing to expand exploratory wells into that deep deposit, which runs from Los Angeles to Northern California and is thought to contain 15 billion barrels of oil.

Under pressure from environmentalists, the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown last week released preliminary draft regulations on fracking. To its credit, the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources wants energy companies, for the first time, to disclose where they are engaged in hydraulic fracturing. Regulators say the proposed rules contain some of the strongest provisions in the nation, including a requirement that oil companies test the integrity of their wells to guard against leaks of fracturing chemicals and report those test results to the state.

That's a step forward, but the draft regulations would still allow energy companies to withhold what kind of chemicals they are using, if they deem their formulas to be "trade secrets." Industry officials say disclosure of proprietary formulas would stifle competition and prevent extraction of an important natural resource.

Sorry, but as valuable as fossil fuels are, California groundwater is a much more treasured resource, and it needs to be protected. We don't allow food companies to withhold the fact they might be adding carcinogenic chemicals to their recipes. Why should we allow oil companies to do the same with fracking?

California must insist on full disclosure on fracking chemicals. If regulators think they lack the authority to order such disclosure, then the Legislature will need to pass legislation to make it the law of the land.

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