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State policies, oversight of fracking inadequate, water quality group says

July 20, 2012
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In a new report , OMB Watch finds that state oversight laws requiring disclosure of the chemicals used in natural gas fracking are in need of an overhaul. The group claims that disclosure of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," is spotty and incomplete, and essential safeguards are missing.

"Public officials in state government are struggling to find a way to protect water supplies and public health in the wake of the rapid expansion of natural gas drilling and extraction. They haven’t gotten it right yet," said Katherine McFate, president of OMB Watch. "Some of the chemicals used in natural gas fracking have been linked to serious health problems, including cancer and kidney, liver, and neurological damage, so it is imperative that local water supplies be carefully monitored and protected."

The report, The Right to Know, the Responsibility to Protect: State Actions Are Inadequate to Ensure Effective Disclosure of the Chemicals Used in Natural Gas Fracking, examines state disclosure laws and rules and identifies the gap between effective policy and existing practice. The analysis is especially timely given the ongoing boom in natural gas extraction: almost half a million natural gas wells are operating in at least 30 states, and more are planned.

The report asserts that an effective chemical disclosure policy should contain the following elements:

  • Before receiving a drilling permit, the owners and operators of natural gas wells should gather baseline information on nearby water sources and water and air quality. They should disclose the chemicals they intend to use in the fracking process and commit to regularly monitoring the water and air near the gas wells and near wastewater storage facilities for potential contamination for as long as the well is operating and for some period after operations have ceased.
  • Information on the chemicals used in fracking should be collected from drilling companies, well operators, and manufacturers and should include specific information on the unique chemical identification numbers, concentrations, and the quantity of the chemicals used.
  • States should have clear guidelines limiting "trade secrets" exemptions from disclosure laws to prevent companies from invoking this loophole to avoid disclosure.
  • Information about the chemicals used at each individual well where fracking occurs should be posted on a public website in a way that allows users to easily search, sort, and download data by chemicals used, companies involved, and well location.

"Some states, like Colorado, do a better job than others of making chemical information available to the public, but no state is requiring enough upfront collection of baseline data and ongoing monitoring to adequately protect local water supplies and public health. Citizens need to have adequate information to evaluate the potential risks and rewards of allowing natural gas fracking in their communities," said Sean Moulton, Director of Information Policy at OMB Watch and an author of the report.

Because of what the group says is "a major loophole" written into the Energy Policy Act of 2005, natural gas fracking activities have been exempt from federal oversight under the Safe Drinking Water Act. As a result, oversight of fracking has shifted to the states.

Over the past three years, 13 of the states with natural gas extraction activities have established rules or laws to require some level of public disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking. Seven states with significant amounts of fracking have no public chemical disclosure requirements, even though a few of them do regulate drilling to a certain extent.

"We hope this report will encourage state and local authorities to improve their chemical disclosure standards, especially in those regions of the country most involved in and affected by natural gas fracking," McFate concluded.

The Right to Know, the Responsibility to Protect is available online at www.ombwatch.org/naturalgasfrackingdisclosure.

OMB Watch is a nonprofit research and advocacy organization dedicated to promoting government effectiveness and increasing citizen engagement.

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