Fracking Disclosure Proposals: Way Too Little, Much Too Late

The federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has finally decided to do something about the lack of oversight regarding fracking fluids. A new proposal by the agency would finally require the fracking industry to disclose the chemical cocktails they are injecting into the ground at fracking well sites. The only problem with the proposal is that it would only require disclosure after the chemicals were put into the ground, meaning that the potential for contamination wouldn’t change a bit.

ENS Newswire lays out the basics of the BLM proposal:

Now, the BLM proposes three new practices to protect public health, drinking water, and the environment. First, the agency proposes to require the public disclosure of chemicals used in fracking operations on federal and Indian lands after fracturing operations have been completed.

Second, the BLM proposes to require confirmation that wells used in fracturing operations meet appropriate construction standards. The agency says this would improve assurances of well-bore integrity to verify that fluids used in wells during fracturing operations are not escaping.

And third, the agency proposes to confirm that oil and gas operators have a water management plan in place for handling fracturing fluids that flow back to the surface.

While the proposal to force disclosure on fracking fluid contents is a step forward, the fact that they would still be allowed to be injected underground without disclosure is a step backwards.

The industry has scored a clear victory in this area, as they have been fighting for years to keep their fracking chemicals “recipes” secret.

While the exact combination of chemicals might be a secret to the public, the dangers from these fracking fluids are widely known:

The EPA found that fluid from a shale gas well more than 4,000 feet deep contaminated well water and that the incident was “illustrative” of pollution problems associated with oil and gas drilling. With now-uncharacteristic candor, the EPA report outlines how the contamination occurs: “During the fracturing process…fractures can be produced, allowing migration of native brine, fracturing fluid and hydrocarbons from the oil or gas well to a nearby water well. When this happens, the water well can be permanently damaged and a new well must be drilled or an alternative source of drinking water found.”

And that’s just the beginning. EcoWatch reported the following recently regarding groundwater contamination and fracking fluid “recycling” – a process that allows the industry the option to “clean” their fracking fluids and release them back into water supplies:

In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that 70 to 140 billion gallons of water may be needed to fracture 35,000 wells in the U.S. each year. This is equivalent to the total amount of water used each year in roughly 40 to 80 cities with a population of 50,000 or about 1 to 2 cities of 2.5 million people. These huge amounts are consumed because approximately 2 to 8 million gallons of water is needed just to frack a single well, which means, assuming only 15 percent flows back, as much as 6.8 million gallons are lost with each fracture.

Significantly, even with recycling, the waste fluid that flows back will never be returned in any meaningful way to the aquifers, rivers, lakes and streams from which it was taken. The “recycled” fluid is used by the gas industry for more fracking. And, where recycling water does lessen the volume of waste to be disposed of, it generates an additional set of disposal headaches. The “recycling” is more like distillation and it leaves behind highly radioactive and toxic sludge or salts that can be dangerous to people and aquatic life if they get into waterways. Current industry practice is to send this radioactive sludge to landfills, where it will continue to be a toxic menace to the community long after the natural gas has dried up.

Several states have grown tired of the lack of action and oversight from the federal government, enacting their own laws that require the public disclosure of fracking cocktails. Given the knowledge that is widely available on how toxic fracking fluids can be, its no surprise that states are beginning to get concerned and take matters into their own hands. The only question is why the BLM has decided to take such a lackadaisical approach to the matter. The answer to that question is actually quite simple: Industry ties. As it turns out, Marcilynn Burke, the Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management, has very close ties to the dirty energy industry. She worked for years as an attorney for the international law firm of Cleary Gottleib, a firm with extensive experience representing the oil and gas industry. From their own website:

With decades of experience representing a wide range of international oil and gas companies, Cleary Gottlieb regularly handles multinational projects, joint ventures, mergers, acquisitions and divestures, the issuance of bonds in the U.S. and international capital markets, corporate restructurings, project and lease financings, structured financings, and other petroleum and petrochemical related transactions.

To put it bluntly – Burke cut her teeth as a young attorney representing the very firms that she is now in charge of regulating. The reason this is so important is because Burke has a tremendous amount of authority at the BLM, according to her federal bio:

As the Acting ASLM, she helps develop the land use, resource management, and regulatory oversight policies that are administered by four Federal agencies. With over 12,000 employees, these agencies—the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), and the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE)—are stewards of vast and diverse public resources. They endeavor to ensure the appropriate management and use of Federal lands and waters and their associated mineral and non-mineral resources, as well as the appropriate regulation of surface coal mining.

Burke is the fox guarding the henhouse on this issue, and she is clearly putting the desires of her former clients over the health and safety of American citizens.