Texas environmentalists praise new fracking chemical disclosure rules, industry praises Railroad Commission

Posted on: October 5th, 2011 by Patrick Michels No Comments

The Texas Railroad Commission made record time Wednesday afternoon with a breezy one-hour public comment hearing over new rules that will require oil and gas producers to disclose the chemicals in their hydraulic fracturing fluid.

Today’s meeting in Austin was the only live session for the public to offer notes on the commission’s rules, which are a faithful translation of a bill passed earlier this year that would make Texas a leader in openness about the chemicals injected into new gas wells.

As she has in the past, Railroad Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones stressed that the new rules shouldn’t be read as a signal that there’s any danger in hydrofracking, or the chemicals involved in the controversial process.

“We want to focus on solving real problems,” said Jones, a Republican who is also running for U.S. Senate. “Fortunately, the combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling is a solution, and not a problem.”

The commission’s chief geologist Leslie Savage said that after the period for written public comment closes on Oct. 11, they plan on putting the new rules in place at the end of December — even earlier than the Texas Legislature required.

When those rules take effect, companies will have to list the chemicals in their fracking fluid, and the amount of water used, for each well. Those totals will be posted at FracFocus.org, a nationwide site developed with industry support where some companies are already posting data voluntarily.

Under the disclosure rules, companies don’t have to report chemicals they say are trade secrets. Only a landowner where the fracking has taken place, or an “adjacent landowner” can challenge that claim.

After an enthusiastic introduction from Jones, Rice University chemistry professor Andrew Barron explained to the mission that the fracking chemical disclosure rules go farther than anything from the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Food and Drug Administration, and would even help allay fears about fracking.

Guar gum, he pointed out, is a common ingredient in fracking fluid — and the same stuff that’s used to make ice cream and pudding.
“Once you understand that most of what’s in frack fluid is what you’re consuming every day, it becomes less of a mystery,” Barron said.

(Earlier this year, one Halliburton official demonstrated how safe and delicious fracking fluid can be by taking a big drink and proclaiming it beer-like.)

Environmentalists who showed up in person were upbeat about the commission’s take on the rules (for a good time, read them here), for the most part.

“We were particularly pleased that you’re moving fast on this,” said the Sierra Club’s Cyrus Reed, who also praised the commission for giving the attorney general authority to rule on the “trade secret” challenge process.

“Generally speaking, the rule is a good one,” said the Texas League of Conservation Voters’ David Weinberg. He warned only that the comission shouldn’t loosen any requirements in its draft rules.

Kathryn Baecht, with Citizens Organizing for Resources and the Environment, was the only voice of strong dissent. “The trade secret loophole is pretty big,” she told commissioners. “I think the rules are actually fairly weak.” She called it “a crime” that companies are allowed to pull millions of gallons from the water cycle to produce oil and gas.

Outside the meeting, Baecht said she was frustrated generally with the heavy industry presence moving in around her rural home north of Dallas. “Where I live, it’s pretty poor, and basically all our resources are up for grabs,” Baecht said.

She’s been frustrated by her attempts to learn more from the Railroad Commission about fracking, she said, simply bounced from one representative to another. “I went through about 15 people before I get to someone who would talk to me about hydraulic fracturing,” she said.

Back in the meeting, though, much of the testimony came from industry groups lining up to thank the commission for its work, including the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers and the Texas Oil and Gas Association.

“Our support for disclosure is not a commentary on the Railroad Commission’s ability to properly regulate this process,” Texas Independent Producers & Royalty Owners Association spokesman Teddy Carter assured commissioners.

Until Oct. 11, the commission is accepting comments on the disclosure rules here.

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