May 9, 2014 6:55 pm

EPA eyes new disclosure rules for fracking chemicals

The US Environmental Protection Agency is considering new rules to compel companies to report details of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas production, in the latest move to tighten federal regulation of the industry.

In a notice released on Friday morning, the EPA said it was giving “advance notice of proposed rulemaking”, and seeking public comments on its plans to collect information on the “chemical substances and mixtures” used in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

The rules would primarily affect the companies that make the chemicals used in fracking, including Dow Chemical and DuPont of the US and BASF of Germany, according to Richard Denison of the Environmental Defense Fund, a campaign group.

He said: “The rules would mean that the EPA would be able to determine which of these chemicals are real problems, and whether steps need to be taken to reduce or eliminate their use.”

The American Petroleum Institute, the oil and gas industry group, criticised the EPA’s plans, saying new reporting rules would be “unnecessary and duplicative.”

It said “robust” chemical information was already available to EPA, as well as to state authorities that were the primary regulators for oil and gas operations.

US oil and gas production has boomed as a result of the shale revolution in recent years, raising concerns about air and water pollution.

Hydraulic fracturing involves pumping large volumes of water mixed with sand and chemicals into wells at high pressure to open small cracks in the rock through which the oil and gas can flow.

Environmentalists say the chemicals, which include acids, thickening agents and additives to prevent corrosion and kill bacteria, are being pumped underground without anyone being able to know what the risks are.

A website called FracFocus was set up in 2011 for companies to disclose the chemicals they use, and now includes reports from 72,000 wells. However, the site allows companies to withhold details of chemicals that are trade secrets.

The composition of fracking fluid makes a crucial difference to the volume of oil and gas that can be recovered from a well, and hence is a source of competitive advantage for companies such as Schlumberger, Halliburton and Baker Hughes that provide fracking services.

The site also gives details of the properties and potential harmful effects of the chemicals used, which is the information now sought by the EPA.

In its notice, the agency said it could impose regulations to force the chemicals companies to report those details, but could also use “best management practices, third-party certification and collection, and incentives for disclosure of this information”.

Mr Denison of the EDF, which is broadly supportive of increased gas production but pushing for regulations to minimise its environmental impact, described the EPA’s move as “baby steps” towards increased public understanding of fracking’s potential hazards. Environmental groups have been pushing for the reporting now being discussed by the EPA for more than two years.

Deb Nardone of the Sierra Club, which is more strongly opposed to fracking, said the EPA’s rules would “provide the critically needed information to help better protect our communities nationwide”.

Many oil and gas companies say they support increased disclosure, but want to maintain protections for trade secrets.

ConocoPhillips said it had not yet been able to review the EPA’s proposals, but as a general principle it supported disclosure “in a way that informs the public and protects proprietary industry information”.

Royal Dutch Shell, however, said it could only disclose details of its fracking fluids to the extent that it was allowed to by its suppliers, and it supported regulation requiring suppliers to release that information.

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