Fracking Disclosure: Is the Data Half-Disclosed or Half-Hidden?

May 16, 2012

Hopes for environmental openness ran high when President Obama announced this year that the Interior Department's forthcoming rules for fracking on federal lands would include requirements that drilling companies disclose what is in their fracking fluids.

But after backroom lobbying by gas and oil industry groups, the Obama White House watered down the disclosure requirement — imposing it only after completion of the fracking operation, when the information may have little effect (such as public pressure on BLM to deny a drilling permit).

The proposed rule Interior originally submitted to OMB "would have required disclosure of the chemicals 30 days before a well could be started," according to a May 4, 2012, story by John M. Broder in The New York Times.

Fracking (short for hydraulic fracturing) involves the drilling of horizontal wells into tight gas- or oil-bearing geological layers and then pumping in fluids at high pressure to fracture them and release hydrocarbons. The fluids may contain scores of chemicals, some toxic. Residents near fracking operations have expressed concern that leakage of these fluids may contaminate well-water and cause health problems.

For years, drillers have resisted disclosure of the ingredients in fracking fluids. While Congress has exempted drillers from disclosure requirements under the Safe Drinking Water Act, some states have passed laws requiring at least partial disclosure. Thus environmentalists viewed it as a step forward when President Obama vowed in his January 24, 2012, State of the Union address that he would require disclosure for fracking permits on federal lands.

But as Interior's Bureau of Land Management prepared to issue the draft rule, gas and oil industry representatives were busy lobbying the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). OMB cites various White House executive orders as authority to override the rules that agencies arrive at based on evidence and arguments in official dockets. Executive Order 12866 mandates that OMB can essentially block agencies when their proposed regulations are not "consistent ... with the President's priorities." In the BLM fracking rule, as in others, the president's priorities seem to be political responses to complaints from powerful industry groups with plenty of cash.

After Interior's rule emerged from OMB, it had been changed to require disclosure only after completion of fracking.

The rule is still officially in the "proposed" stage — meaning that Interior and OMB will be accepting comments until a July 10, 2012, deadline, and will finalize the rule only after that date.