Baker Hughes Vows To Disclose Frack Chemicals. Will Others?

May 14, 2014

It's not that much of a secret that there are nasty chemicals in fracking fluid: ....hydrochloric acid, methanol, diesel oil, lye, and worse. Even though the chemicals are largely known, drilling companies have claimed that their particular formulas are "trade secrets" — as justification for refusing to disclose them to residents and municipalities concerned about what might show up in their drinking water.

Now one major oilfield services company, Baker Hughes, has vowed to disclose all the chemicals in its fracking fluid. Fracking is the technology fueling the current U.S. oil and gas boom — it involves drilling horizontally into a hydrocarbon-bearing formation of shale, and then injecting special fluids under high pressure to fracture the rock and release oil and gas.

It may be good PR. Baker Hughes has not only been a leader in oilfield technology, but has also been a leader in the inexact science of producing benign media coverage. Since the 1940s, it has compiled and published the "rig count" that serves as a metric of domestic oil exploration.

What Baker Hughes proposed was still a bit less than total disclosure. The firm's disclosures would be accomplished through formatting revisions to the industry-supported FracFocus database, in its latest 2.0 version. Baker Hughes says it will disclose the identities of all the chemicals it uses, if not the exact amounts or proportions — thus allowing it to keep secret the precise formulas and recipes that might give it (or clients) a competitive advantage. This might be enough to help well-owners to identify any fracking-caused groundwater pollution. The question remains: will others in the industry follow suit?

The Baker Hughes move might also be a shrewd way of getting ahead of the inevitable. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signalled May 9, 2014, that it was considering a rule requiring disclosure of the chemicals in fracking fluid. That was the day the agency signed a Federal Register notice asking for comment on an "advance notice of proposed rulemaking" on fracking fluid disclosure. The notice has not yet been published, but is available in prepublication form.

While the Safe Drinking Water Act protects groundwater to some extent by regulating underground injection, however loosely, and promoting disclosure of what is injected, fracking fluid is exempt from SDWA. The 2005 Energy Policy Act included the "Halliburton Loophole," endorsed by Vice President Cheney's secret energy task force, amending the definition of "underground injection" to exclude hydraulic fracturing.

That leaves EPA open to possible industry objections that it has no legal authority to require fracking fluid disclosure — which could lead EPA to try a voluntary approach.