Data Accumulates Slowly on What's in Fracking Fluid

April 18, 2012

If you have a fracking story in your beat, getting information about what's in the controversial fracking fluids may be like pulling teeth. But there are a few resources that can help.

Hydrofracturing, or "fracking," is a technique used to enhance gas and oil production from wells drilled into shale formations. Typically, directional drilling is used to place a perforated pipe horizontally in a hydrocarbon-rich geological layer, and then a cocktail of chemicals and water is pumped into it at a very high pressure to fracture the rock, releasing gas or oil. Drilling companies have tended to resist disclosure of the ingredients in their fracking fluids, claiming their formulas, like that for Coca-Cola, are trade secrets. Current law prevents the federal government from forcing public disclosure. But companies have given some ground on disclosure gradually as public fears of contamination of their wellwater have mounted. Disclosure requirements in active fracking states, while not perfect, are ahead of the federal government.

One helpful resource is the "FracFocus" chemical disclosure registry. It's a database meant to list known fracking wells and the chemicals used in their fracking fluids. It is run by the Ground Water Protection Council and Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission. It is not perfect, either, but it offers a starting point for further questions about the situation in your area. It allows you to look up wells either by map or location, but it helps to know the well you are looking for before you start.

EPA itself is trying to collect better data about what's in fracking fluid. In response to a petition, EPA told Earthjustice and other groups November 23, 2011, that it would begin rulemaking under the Toxic Substance Control Act to get toxicity information on fracking fluids. The agency sent a draft advance notice of proposed rulemaking to the White House Office of Management and Budget this winter. But despite President Obama's declaration in his January 2012 State of the Union Message that he would seek fracking fluid disclosure, OMB so far has just sat on the EPA draft ANPR without doing anything.

The Interior Department has announced that it will require fracking fluid disclosure for all new gas and oil leases on public lands.

And there's now an app for that — thanks to ProPublica, whose reporters, especially Abrahm Lustgarten, have dogged the fracking story for years. Well, NPR called it an app, and it can be browsed on a mobile phone, even if it is not the kind of program that runs on a smartphone per se. It's full of simple, clear information about chemicals in fracking fluid.