Letter From Sacramento:Fracking Fluid Contents: We Need to Know

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Trying to make sense of this irrational world is challenging when it comes to secrecy and the public's right to know.

Over the last few weeks, we've read press accounts of how our federal government has been secretly obtaining thousands upon thousands of telephone and online activity records of millions of Americans. They have done it, they say, to protect national security.

As one who was a card-carrying civil libertarian before I was eligible for a driver's license, I have many complicated thoughts about this latest news. One pertains directly to the environment and the work we do in Sacramento to protect public health and environmental quality. That thought is this:

At a time when the federal government has decided it has the right to monitor phone calls and emails of ordinary citizens, our state government is working to prevent ordinary citizens from knowing the contents of oil industry pollution that could leach into groundwater. What would the Founding Fathers think?

In the California legislature, two bills have emerged that would make it hard for the public to know about the chemicals being pumped underground in the course of hydrofracturing, or fracking, during oil and gas drilling. Fracking is a process that combines harsh chemicals, other materials, and (usually) intense pressure to help break up rock and soil for oil and gas extraction.

The bills would create in statute a path for fracking fluid makers to claim their pollution is protected by trade secrets provisions. The public could ask for the fracking fluid information, but that would be trumped if the fluid maker refuses to provide the information. Then the public would have to go to court to fight for the information.

Practically speaking, that could mean that every time a new fracking operation starts in California, someone would have to go to court to battle for information about what poisons are being spewed into the earth. There are already at least 600 fracked wells in the state. What's the likelihood that for those wells, or the next 600, the industry will voluntarily provide information?

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention: Both bills would prohibit physicians who get access to the fracking fluid information from reporting about its health impacts to medical journals or conferences.

Last week, one of those bills, AB 7 (Weickowski), couldn't get out of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee. The author was granted reconsideration, which means he has a chance to bring it back to the committee, and he is trying hard to get it heard again before the end of June.

The other bill, SB 4 (Pavley), moved through the Senate earlier. It will likely face the same Assembly committee before the end of this month, and we're awaiting word about possible amendments.

Both bills contain other provisions that would direct better regulation of fracking. But for the Sierra Club and a handful of allies, putting trade secrets protections for fracking fluids into statute is a fundamental problem and we've opposed both bills.

I'd like to report that AB 7 failed in committee because the trade secrets provisions horrified the enlightened Democrats on the committee. In fact, two of the Democrats moved and seconded the bill. Two of the Republicans signaled they were worried the bill leaned too much toward environmental disclosure. AB 7 ultimately failed for reasons having nothing to do with the public's right to know.

The trade secrets protections for fracking fluids are promoted at the Capitol by Halliburton, the oil fields services company whose shoddy work contributed to the massive 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Is it wise to trust regulators and fracking fluid makers like Halliburton to protect our interests?

We don't think so. That's one reason why the public must have access to the chemicals being pumped into the earth during fracking. We--the public--have a right to know what may be polluting the soil beneath our farms, the groundwater we drink, and the air we breathe. We need the information to test our own waters and check the work the regulators and the frackers are doing.

It's a matter of environmental and public health security. The legislature shouldn't help the oil industry hide the facts from ordinary citizens.



Kathryn Phillips               

Kathryn Phillips, Director                             
Sierra Club California                                  

Sierra Club California is the Sacramento-based legislative and regulatory advocacy arm of the 13 California chapters of the Sierra Club.