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Let's close the information gap about fracking

The oil and gas industry wants to withhold information even from regulators about the exact formulation of the fluids injected into the ground during fracking, calling them trade secrets.

June 10, 2012|Michael Hiltzik

The industry numbers come from voluntary submissions from fracking companies to the industry website Fracfocus.org. But it's only fair to say that, objectively speaking, the website is worthless. It's voluntary, so no one can tell whether it's complete or reliable, and there's no penalty for withholding information. Companies responsible for only 80% of production in California participate.

Late last week, the website listed 137 fracked wells in California; but DOGGR says it's aware that 628 wells were fracked statewide in 2011, which gives you an idea of the potential information gulf. DOGGR has asked all operators to voluntarily report to Fracfocus, but the information isn't submitted until after a well is completed, making it a teensy bit difficult for the regulators to be proactive.

Marshall says the division is now focused on efforts to "increase our knowledge about where is fracking happening and making sure it's happening in a way that protects public health, safety and the environment." He also observes that existing regulations already require wells to be "constructed safely, operated safely and maintained safely" regardless of the technology employed. "But we know that we don't know when a well gets fractured, and we know that we should."

As part of its rule-making process, DOGGR has been holding informational workshops for communities around the state, including two set for this week in Culver City and Long Beach.

The industry opposed Pavley's bill because "it was nothing more than another attempt to make it harder and more costly to produce energy in California," says Tupper Hull, spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Assn., the industry lobbying arm. "The scope of the reporting was overly broad, it didn't make a lot of sense, and in our view there was nothing to suggest there was a public benefit from those notifications."

Translation: The industry's concern was that the more local residents and authorities knew about the drillers' plans, the more opportunity they'd have to push back.

The demise of Pavley's bill leaves a measure introduced by Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont) as the subject of talks involving industry, environmental groups and other parties. But that bill has been getting steadily emasculated. The biggest sticking point involves trade secrets — that is, the exact formulation of the fluids injected into the ground during fracking. The industry wants to withhold these secrets even from regulators. That's a "non-starter" for the Environmental Working Group, which sponsored both original fracking measures.

The industry's preferred language would require well operators to file a form claiming a trade secret, without fully describing the secret to regulators. A given chemical, for example, could be identified merely by reference to its "chemical family or similar descriptor." That could render the identification uninformative if not downright misleading — after all, it's not unusual for a single chemical family to comprise medicines as well as poisons.

"The oil and gas industry wants to determine what is a trade secret and not even give the agency the names of the chemicals they consider secret," says Renee Sharp, the environmental group's California director. "So if you had some contamination later on, it would be very hard to trace it to fracking. You wouldn't even know what chemicals to look for, and that is a real problem."

Kustic and Marshall of DOGGR say that California will almost certainly get fracking-specific regulations, but that the rule-making process won't be completed this year. That's good, but thanks to the industry favoritism of our elected legislators, at least until that point we'll be flying blind.

Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at mhiltzik@latimes.com, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.

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