The Environmental Protection Agency has asked companies that extract natural gas to voluntarily disclose the chemicals in the liquids they use to tap gas reserves. Hydraulic fracturing, a method that uses a high-pressure blast of chemical compounds, sand, and water to fracture rock and access natural gas reserves, has drawn plenty of criticism, as companies have been caught injecting diesel and other toxic chemicals into the ground.
While the EPA's request is voluntary, the letter it sent to nine companies was pretty forceful. Because the data the agency is looking for "is similar to information that has already been provided separately to Congress by the industry," the agency state in a realease, "EPA expects the companies to cooperate." If they don't, "EPA is prepared to use its authorities to require the information needed to carry out its study."
In the letter to the companies, the agency is even more direct: "EPA is requesting that you provide this information voluntarily; however, to the extent that EPA does not receive sufficient data in response to this letter, EPA will be exploring legal alternatives to compel submission of the needed information."
BJ Services, Complete Production Services, Halliburton, Key Energy Services, Patterson-UTI, PRC, Inc., Schlumberger, Superior Well Services, and Weatherford received the letter. They are asked to indicate whether or not they intend to provide that information within seven days, and to actually cough it up within 30 days.
Natural gas extractors have been caught using toxic chemicals like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene in their fracking fluids. But in 2005, the industry successfully lobbied to have fracking fluids exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act—meaning they currently don't have to tell the public what they're injecting into the ground. Yet with the rapid expansion of the natural gas industry and backlash in areas where drilling has now become an issue, the industry is getting more scrutiny. Earlier this year, Halliburton and BJ Services admitted to injected hundreds of thousands of gallons of diesel-based chemicals into the ground.
The EPA has undertaken a multiyear study of the potential impacts of fracking on drinking water and public health. The first results of the study are expected in 2012. But efforts to force companies to disclose the chemicals have met quite a bit of backlash. Many of the gas companies have been reluctant to provide even the most basic information to the agency. They argue that the chemical mixtures are proprietary information and are as safe as Coca-Cola. (In the request letter, the EPA states that companies can request that the data they provide be considered Confidential Business Information, which means while the agency gets to see it, the public would still be in the dark.)
There are also some signs that Congress might legislate disclosure in the near future. The Senate energy bill (which is effectively dead for now anyway) drew a lot of heat for a provision that would have forced disclosure. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) has introduced a similar measure in the House.