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Editorial

Something in the water

Oil companies are not saying what chemicals are used in 'fracking.' An Assembly bill would change that.

May 09, 2011

There was a time when people only said "fracking" to avoid using a more objectionable word. Now it can be found in national headlines, and if it's no longer a curse word, it is proving to be a serious new environmental curse.

Fracking is shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, a rapidly growing method for extracting oil and natural gas that may (or may not) have deadly consequences. Energy companies inject a mixture of water, sand and assorted chemicals — often including diesel fuel — at high pressure into underground wells, cracking open rock formations that would otherwise trap the valuable fossil fuels. Because this was a relatively uncommon practice until recently, oil lobbyists have been extremely successful in exempting hydraulic fracturing from many of the federal regulations that govern the release of dangerous chemicals into the environment. Today natural gas extraction is soaring and so is the practice of fracking, and the public is taking notice. It's about time.

The worry is that the chemicals used in fracking, sometimes including the carcinogen benzene, are contaminating water supplies. No one has conclusively demonstrated such contamination, but then there has been shockingly little study of the issue — and considerable evidence that political interference has discouraged regulators from thoroughly examining it. Environmental Protection Agency insiders charge that a 2004 agency study of fracking, which found that the practice posed little threat to drinking water, was seriously flawed as a result of pressure from the Bush administration and industry. The EPA is working on a new study due next year.

Complicating efforts to understand the impact of fracking is that there is no federal rule forcing oil companies to disclose what chemicals they're using. So states — including California — are taking action.

AB 591 from Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont) would require companies to disclose the chemicals injected into wells, which would be posted on a state website. It's patterned on a similar bill in Texas that's considered by environmental groups to be a national model, though the California version goes further. Industry officials are opposing the bill because, unlike the one in Texas (and similar disclosure requirements approved in such states as Arkansas, Wyoming and Colorado), it doesn't allow companies to withhold information considered trade secrets.

Requiring disclosure of potentially deadly chemicals released into the environment is an extremely modest step (indeed, it should be a federal responsibility). We understand the need to protect trade secrets, and wouldn't object if Wieckowski's bill were amended to afford the disclosure protections typically granted to polluters in California. But this bill is too important to be overlooked by our distracted Legislature.

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