Drilling companies must disclose their fracking 'recipes'

Gov. Martin O'Malley's executive order on natural gas drilling in Western Maryland has three major components, but it ought to have four. It calls for a report this year on the liabilities of such drilling and whether a special tax should be levied to pay for oversight. It calls for best practices for natural gas exploration by August 2012. And it calls for a final report, by August 2014, on the environmental and economic impact of drilling in Maryland's stretch of the Marcellus shale formation.

It's a good plan, an appropriate slow-down to the Great Gas Rush that has been underway in Pennsylvania, our hydro-fracked neighbor to the north, for some time now.

What it doesn't do — and should specifically do — is demand full disclosure of the contents of the chemical soup that energy companies inject at high pressure deep into the Earth in order to crack through shale and release gas.

This would be a direct challenge to the so-called "Halliburton loophole," championed by former vice president (and former Halliburton executive) Dick Cheney and inserted into the 2005 energy bill adopted by Congress. It exempts the fluids used in the hydraulic fracturing process from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Halliburton, along with other companies engaged in natural gas extraction across the nation, claim their process is safe but that the exemption is necessary to protect trade secrets.

It's incredible that such a loophole exists — but then, we're talking about something that came out of the Bush-Cheney years inWashington.

Because of all the serious environmental and human health questions now associated with deep-drilling for natural gas, a few states have demanded at least partial disclosure of the chemicals in the fracking fluids; some of them are considered carcinogens, after all.

The Texas legislature is the latest to require companies to reveal contents of its fracking fluids. The vote, which came on Memorial Day weekend, was hailed as "landmark legislation."

But it remains to be seen if Texas will demand — and get — full disclosure. In a Bloomberg News report, the chairman of the agency that oversees oil and gas exploration in Texas sounded like a lackey of the oil and gas industry. "We won't be knowing the recipes [of fracking fluids]," Elizabeth Ames Jones said. "That's sacred ground as far as I'm concerned, and I don't think that's at all the direction we want to go in."

God forbid we should know what's being pumped into the Earth, the source of ground water, in order to get natural gas out.

For the better part of the last decade, the energy industry and the Environmental Protection Agency have been telling us that fracking is safe, and the present EPA administrator, appointed by President Barack Obama, says she knows of no proven case of the process affecting drinking water.

But just last month, a Duke University study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, linked fracking to methane gas in well water in northeastern Pennsylvania and southern New York. (New York has halted drilling pending a study, while in Pennsylvania fracking continues.)

Additionally, the man who was in charge of the EPA's 2004 study of fracking recently said that its conclusions — that the process posed little or no threat to drinking water — have been exaggerated for years. Ben Grumbles, who ran the EPA's water office before becoming president of the Clean Water America Alliance, wrote on the alliance website that the report never should have been interpreted as a "perpetual clean bill of health for fracking" nor used to justify the Safe Drinking Water Act exemption.

The EPA is in the midst of another study on this. But why wait for that?

Maryland should announce that it will not allow any fluids to be injected into the ground without full disclosure.

In fact, the governor should amend his executive order with that provision. No one should be allowed to pump millions of gallons of secret fluids of questionable safety into the ground anywhere in the state, much less in a region noted for fabulous waters — the North Branch of the Potomac, the Savage, the Youghiogheny, the Casselman. Some of those rivers, and the licks and creeks that flow into them, are born-again; they're just recovering from decades of coal mining.

Garrett and Allegany counties are full of natural treasures. Deep-earth natural gas might be one of them. If the chemical mix in fracking is safe, the drilling companies should show us their recipes. Otherwise, they should take their business elsewhere.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. He hosts Midday, Mondays through Fridays, on WYPR. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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