Critics of fracking tend not to applaud the oil and gas companies that do it. But one of California’s big industry players has been garnering quiet but widespread praise.
Late last month, with not much fanfare, the Houston-based oilfield services firm Baker Hughes announced it would publicly disclose all the chemicals it puts into its hydraulic fracturing mixture.
Shot deep into well bores to split rock and unleash oil and natural gas reserves trapped there, the fracking fluid – a slimy slurry of water, sand and other assorted solvents – varies by supplier and region.
Big oilfield service firms such as Halliburton, Schlumberger and Baker Hughes regard their custom blends as precious trade secrets. But their tight-lipped demands to “trust us” have, over time, unsettled even fans of fracking. Others believe the companies are hiding dangerous secrets. And that was too often true.
A 2011 congressional investigation led by California Democrat Henry Waxman found that some 2,500 add-ins were going into the suppliers’ special sauces, for uses that ranged from killing bacteria to reducing friction. Some ingredients were harmless. (Salt, guar gum, citric acid.) Some were surprising. (Walnut hulls, tallow soap, instant coffee.)
But more than 650 contained carcinogens and hazardous pollutants, from methanol to benzene. To those with understandable concerns about the risk of groundwater contamination around drill sites, the companies’ secrecy was a recipe for disaster.
That’s why California last year passed a law requiring disclosure of every chemical in every fracking fluid at every well site, along with its purpose and concentration. Even proprietary ingredients now must be divulged to state regulators, though they don’t have to be posted to the searchable website run by the Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources.
But of all the big oilfield service companies, Baker Hughes, which does massive amounts of fracking for well operators in California, is the only one so far to embrace the spirit of laws. It has let go of the “trade secret” dodge and vowed to give full lists of ingredient data both to regulators across the country and to Fracfocus.org, the industry’s voluntary disclosure website.
The decision can’t have been hard. Governments worldwide increasingly are demanding disclosure. And transparency isn’t rocket science. Coca-Cola puts its ingredients on its cans and somehow still keeps its formula secret. But getting out ahead of competitors like Halliburton – which, surprise, has yet to match the disclosure commitment – was smart, and a good first step in a relationship that isn’t going away anytime soon. The fracking boom has led to tens of thousands of new wells, and many more new jobs, across the country.
Though Baker Hughes says its new policy will take several months to take effect nationally, the U.S. Department of Energy last week publicly welcomed the decision.
So do we. Baker Hughes is finally doing what its industry should have been doing all along.