Fracking chemical rule sent back for revisions

jmurawski@newsobserver.comMay 3, 2013 

The state’s fracking board put off voting on a chemical disclosure standard Friday in response to objections from energy conglomerate Halliburton and top officials within the state’s environmental agency.

The last-minute delay follows disclosures this week that Halliburton had privately expressed concerns to state officials about North Carolina’s proposed standard on fracking chemicals. The disclosure of chemicals is considered one of the most important rules governing fracking, which involves pumping water and chemicals underground to break up shale rock and flush out natural gas trapped inside.

The N.C. Mining & Energy Commission had set out to write the nation’s strictest safety standards governing shale gas exploration, or fracking. After more than six months of preliminary meetings, the commission was finally set to vote on the chemical rule as the first of more than 120 rules it expects to consider in the coming year.

Instead, commission Chairman James Womack sought to assure his fellow commissioners that Halliburton is not running the show here, and added that the commission is committed to protecting public safety.

“No company stops what this commission is doing,” Womack said. “And no individual in the legislative body does, either.

“This is an independent body.”

Womack said he has been involved in private discussions with Halliburton officials, and is confident the commission can deal with the company’s concerns without compromising public safety.

The commissioners agreed Friday to send the chemical disclosure back for revisions, but only after a soul-searching discussion about their obligations to the public. The commission is one of the state’s most closely watched boards as it develops environmental safeguards for fracking, which is currently under moratorium in North Carolina.

“I’m just discouraged that information wasn’t brought forward while the committee was deliberating,” said commissioner Charlotte Mitchell, a Raleigh lawyer. “We spent hours deliberating.”

But commissioner Vik Rao, a former chief technology officer at Halliburton, was unperturbed.

“In the end the public should judge us by the results, not by the method or by the appearance,” he said.

Halliburton, which makes fracking fluid for the energy industry, and state environmental regulators are concerned that the standard would have required drilling operators to disclose corporate trade secrets in fracking fluid formulations to the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, potentially inviting freedom-of-information lawsuits from competitors, critics and others.

The proposed rule also would have required the state legislature to change the law to allow the agency to determine what information qualifies as a trade secret, and to withhold that information from public disclosure.

Fracking fluids contain chemicals found in food additives as well as industrial toxins and carcinogens. The chemical cocktails help maintain fluid consistency and prevent well corrosion.

Womack said the commission instead will develop a chemical rule that will allow energy companies to disclose ingredients without revealing precise amounts.

“We won’t know if it’s one pound of salt or 100 pounds of salt,” he said. “You’ll just know there’s salt in there.”

Therese Vick, an organizer with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, chastised the commission for the sinister appearance of its dealings with Halliburton.

“The fact remains that these rules on chemical disclosure were debated, talked about and publicly commented on over months, and where was the industry then?” Vick said Friday. “Why did they not come to this podium and speak for three minutes or less?”

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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