Wyoming, a bastion of conservative politics long influenced by the energy industry, is now the first state in the nation to say that the ingredients in hydraulic fracturing fluids used to rupture rock blocking oil and gas reserves will be public information.
In June, the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission unanimously ruled that ingredients would be reported to the commission – at the insistence of Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal, a member of that body. At the time, it was unclear how that would work and whether ingredients would be public.
In late August, Commission Supervisor Tom Doll clarified the situation, saying the ingredients will be public information and on Sept. 15, the commission’s new rules will go into effect, forcing companies to reveal new details about the chemicals used in a range of drilling fluids, including fracking fluids.
In a phone interview with New West, Freudenthal said he’d pushed a straightforward argument – that the actual formula or recipe for fracking fluid could remain a commercial secret, but that the ingredients had to be revealed to the state and, by extension, the public.
Several energy companies were not enthusiastic about this approach, said the governor, but none of them pushed back as hard as Halliburton, the leading developer of hydraulic fracturing technology.
“Halliburton sent a big-time lawyer to talk to us, but it didn’t go well for him,” Freudenthal said.
There’s an element of irony here. Halliburton, once led by Wyoming’s own Dick Cheney, provides fracking fluid and services to much of the oil and gas industry. In 2005, at the urging of then-Vice President Cheney, Congress exempted fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act as part of the 2005 Energy Act. In crafting what environmentalists dubbed the “Halliburton loophole,” Congress relied on a 2001 energy task force chaired by Cheney, which reported on the many advantages of hydraulic fracturing, and that most fracking fluid is recovered.
Not so, according to investigators associated with ProPublica, the nonprofit journalism outfit that has been looking into the effects of hydraulic fracturing for more than two years. According to its experts, “as much as 85 percent of the fluids used during hydraulic fracturing is being left underground after wells are drilled.”
Gov. Freudenthal confirmed Wyoming is the only state to require that fracking ingredients be made public. “What other states do is up to them,” he said. “What’s important is that we got ahead of this. This big play on the Niobrara shale (in southeast Wyoming) is going to mean a lot of fracking.” From now on, said the governor, Wyoming will have the necessary records and data to determine the least-harmful methods of future fracking.
Hydraulic fracturing is a 60-year-old technique used by the oil and gas industry to either enhance or initiate the flow of oil and gas from rock formations. Using proprietary recipes of water, silica sand and chemicals, fracking fluid is pumped under high pressure into rock, causing it to fracture. The fractures, kept open with the particles of silica and sand, allow oil and gas to emerge from tight formations like sandstone and shale.
The energy industry credits hydraulic fracturing with a dramatic expansion of natural gas reserves – as much as 35 percent. Before hydraulic fracturing became widely used, hydrocarbons locked in sandstone and shale were deemed inaccessible. Now they’re targets of a drilling frenzy as the energy industry pursues oil and, especially, natural gas reserves in Texas, Colorado, Wyoming and back East in the Marcellus Shale, with drilling operations in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.
According to Cindy Wertz, spokeswoman for the Wyoming Bureau of Land Management, fracking is extremely common.
“Of the 16,811 federal wells that have been completed in Wyoming since fiscal year 2000, 95 percent have had hydraulic fracturing,” she said.
Indeed, Wyoming BLM sources indicate that hydraulic fracturing is essentially standard operating procedure for oil and gas wells anywhere in the state, whether or not tight rock formations are involved. Fracking might be done to maximize flow efficiency at the beginning, middle or late in the productive life of a well. Some wells might need just a little shot of fracking fluid, while others might need dozens of truck loads.
Heretofore, industry has reported the use of hydraulic fracturing to the BLM and the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, but not the ingredients, nor the amount used.
That’s all going to change at the insistence of Gov. Freudenthal and the commission. Individual well reports will now include whether fracking was used, the ingredients, how much was pumped in and how much was recovered.
“This is huge,” said Deb Thomas, an organizer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council. She and her group have been working for years to get state and federal agencies to investigate a growing number of complaints from Wyoming citizens about water contamination that occurs near drilling sites.
Because the ingredients of fluids have been shielded from the public as commercial secrets, it has proved impossible to link water problems back to hydraulic fracturing operations, said Thomas.
Her colleague, Pavillion resident John Fenton, agrees. “The public needs to have access to the chemicals being used,” he said, “whether something goes wrong during the actual fracking episode, spills occur during transport or companies improperly dispose of fluids. People need to know what they’re being exposed to. If the fluids are safe, why won’t companies tell the public what chemicals are in them?”
At national, state and company levels, the uniform stance is that hydraulic fracturing is safe.
Kathleen Sgamma, director of government affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States (now Western Energy Alliance) noted in a 2008 op-ed piece for the Denver Post, that “fracking is a safe, well-tested technology that has been used to develop energy for over 60 years. This technology is used thousands of times each year with an exemplary safety record.” She emphasized that fracking fluid is typically 99 percent water and sand and 1 percent chemicals.
John Robitaille, vice-president of Petroleum Association of Wyoming, said he’s somewhat comforted that the commission is willing to look at industry claims of confidentiality if requested.
He said it is “too early” to know whether industry can live with these new regulations or not: “We’ll just have to get some experience with this under our belt.”