Did Halliburton Buy Baker Hughes Silence on Fracking Chemicals?

November 19, 2014

It seemed like good news when Baker Hughes, one of the world's largest oilfield services companies, announced in October 2014 that it would start disclosing all the chemicals it used in its fracking operation. That news may be short-lived, now that Halliburton, an even larger oilfield services company, is buying Baker Hughes.

Halliburton's record on fracking chemical disclosure has been not so good. This is the company honored by having the "Halliburton amendment," or "Halliburton loophole," named after it. That is the provision in the 2005 Energy Bill that exempts fracking operations from Safe Drinking Water Act disclosure requirements.

Today's gas and oil boom is driven largely by fracking. That's the nickname for a technology used to release hydrocarbons from shale formations that were not productive under simpler and cheaper old-fashioned drill-and-pump methods. Directional drilling is used to drill holes horizontally into layers of shale, and then fluids are pumped into them at very high pressures to fracture the shale and release oil and gas.

The fluids pumped down the hole to "frack" a well include not only water (a scarce commodity at many drilling sites), but chemicals like hydrochloric acid, methanol, diesel oil, lye, and worse. Chemicals used also include benzene, formaldehyde, and napthalene, which are capable of causing cancer. Even though the general list of chemicals used in fracking is well known, many companies claim the exact mixtures they use are "confidential business information." This may not be because the recipe for their secret fracking sauce is better than those of their competitors, but because the exact formula can be used to "fingerprint" pollution by a particular well when it occurs.

Unlike Baker Hughes, Halliburton shows no signs of softening its stance on non-disclosure of fracking chemicals to the public that may be endangered by them. As recently as November 4, 2014, it was at the White House Office of Management and Budget, urging the administration to impose greater fracking fluid ingredient secrecy in the Interior Department's forthcoming rule on fracking on federal lands.

Although sometimes described as a merger, the Baker Hughes deal sometimes looked more like a hostile Halliburton takeover. The new company will have Halliburton's name and CEO. The Justice Department does not appear likely to challenge the deal on antitrust grounds.

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