A Fracking First: Texas Leads the Way on Disclosure

David Weinberg is Executive Director of the Texas League of Conservation Voters. (On Twitter: @TLCV and Facebook: TexasLCV)

This month, a funny thing happened in a state better known for its high profile, politically-charged feuds with the Environmental Protection Agency. Texas took a bold – and some might argue, unexpected – step forward on a hydraulic fracturing chemical disclosure law. This is the first comprehensive chemical disclosure law for the controversial natural gas extraction method passed by a state legislature in the U.S.

While not perfect, the Texas measure signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry on June 17 (House Bill 3328) represents an improvement in natural gas drilling practices by making it mandatory to disclose the often closely guarded mixture of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing.

Hydraulic fracturing – or fracking, as its often called – is a method used in natural gas drilling whereby a well is drilled vertically and then extended horizontally into rock formations known to hold gas deposits.  Fracturing fluids, including water, sand and chemical additives are then pumped into the well at extremely high pressures, “fracturing” the rock and holding open the cracks. It’s a process that after being repeated several times yields natural gas, which flows to and is collected at the surface.

Concerns over the chemical additives and the potential impact of the procedure on ground water and soil have led to a growing chorus of citizens, landowners and environmental groups (especially those in the Barnett Shale region of North Texas) to call for increased scrutiny of the process and the chemicals used.

Much of the environmental community in Texas, including the Texas League of Conservation Voters, feels strongly that there must be transparency and accountability in the process of hydraulic fracturing.   There are other important issues related to gas drilling, including proper enforcement, fugitive emission capture, and pipeline safety, which must be addressed, but disclosure on how fracking works is a fundamental starting point.

In a state where oil and gas are king and the energy industry is filled with larger-than-life characters, both real (Red Adair) and scripted (J.R. Ewing), some might find it surprising that such a bill would even get a hearing, let alone enjoy the broad, bipartisan support it garnered and the signature of a less-than-green governor.

Yet, if Texans consider oil a sort of black gold, then water is like a crystal clear diamond, that’s prized nearly as much.  And, the combination of increased levels of drilling in more urban areas and the concern over groundwater contamination moved the state forward on this issue.  Important to note, too, is that the industry itself was largely supportive, and some companies moved toward voluntary disclosure before the bill was filed this session.

The law, which takes effect September 1, 2011, will require disclosure via Fracfocus.org of the chemicals used, with some limited exceptions for trade secrets.  Some environmental advocates have argued that the Texas law does not go far enough because it provides limited data on non-OSHA chemicals, is only enforceable if a chemical was used intentionally and for a particular purpose, and limits third-party challenges to trade secret exemptions.

Nevertheless, the Texas law should help us move closer to a more complete understanding of the potential impact and public health implications of hydraulic fracturing fluids used in natural gas production. It’s an opportunity to provide the kind of relevant data that will help environmentalists, scientists and public health professionals ascertain the potential short and long-term impact these chemicals have on the public, our water and other natural resources.

It’s not perfect, but it’s progress.