Full frackin' disclosure


New regulations in Wyoming requiring gas companies to disclose chemicals used in fracking go a long way toward addressing a rising chorus of health and environmental concerns. But, like a wholesome, Wyoming first date, it's just a start, and they don't go all the way.

Drillers have long contended that the chemical cocktails they use in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to crack open rock and keep the fissure open to allow gas to seep up the well bore are proprietary. Under the Wyoming rules, the strictest in the country, companies are required to release a list of chemicals to be used in fracturing operations, which will be published on the Wyoming Oil and Gas Commission’s website. The commission has discretion to grant exceptions, whereby companies can still claim the mix is proprietary information, but they must still submit the information to the state. In those cases, the commission would hold the information in confidence, unless an incident occurs and it needs to be turned over to health providers, for example.

"We feel like this is a really great start," says Deb Thomas, of the Powder River Basin Resource Council. "We applaud the oil and gas commission and the governor for taking this great first step. But it's only a first step."

Wyoming's new rules, though relatively sweeping, don't undermine the ability of companies to keep fracking cocktails confidential in other states. The chemical mix tends to vary depending on drilling conditions, Thomas says, and thus what's revealed in Wyoming isn't at all necessarily what's in the ground in Oklahoma. Furthermore, the Wyoming rules don't address other chemicals used in drilling.

"We need total disclosure on all fluids, not just fracking fluids," says Thomas. "This disclosure has to be in every state, and I think that it needs federal oversight," she says. "The Frac Act still needs to be passed for sure."

Fracking is not currently regulated under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, thanks to an exemption granted by the 2005 Energy Act, but a recently launched Environmental Protection Agency study may herald federal regulation of fracking in the future. Part of Wyoming governor Dave Freudenthal's motivation in instituting the new rules was to preempt federal regulation and set a standard by becoming a regulatory leader.

"I know on the national scene, people were waiting for a state to come forward," Oil and Gas Commission Supervisor Tom Doll told the Associated Press. "I think we're one of the first, if not the first."

Denver Nicks is a High Country News intern.