NC fracking commission considers putting chemical data in ‘electronic lock box’

jmurawski@newsobserver.comDecember 6, 2013 

— The N.C. Mining and Energy Commission has come up with yet another potential solution to the thorny problem of how to deal with chemicals that will be used in fracking. The commissioners want the chemical data to be safeguarded in an “electronic lock box” that could be accessed digitally in the event of a chemical spill or other accident.

For more than a year, commissioners have tried to decide how to handle situations in which energy companies claim that chemical cocktails used in shale gas exploration are competitive trade secrets and must be shielded from the public. State lawmakers, who will have final say over fracking standards, have warned they will not tolerate safety rules that threaten the prospects for energy exploration in North Carolina.

The commissioners have tried to walk a fine line to appease lawmakers, the oil-and-gas industry as well as residents who live in the largely rural areas that could see drill derricks and gas production. And they have run out of options to procrastinate making a decision.

“We’re going to put this to a vote next meeting,” said Chairman James Womack. “I want to put this thing to bed.”

Fracking chemicals – which range from household cleansers to food additives and industrial solvents – are pumped underground to help break up deep rock formations and dislodge natural gas trapped inside. Critics have have blamed the compounds for crop damage in other states and say chemicals pumped underground pose a threat to the safety to aquifers and drinking water.

Environmental activists said the commissioners are devising increasingly byzantine procedures in their commitment to keep the state government from holding chemical records.

“They’re creating another bureaucratic layer out there and it could require a number of phone calls,” said Therese Vick, an organizer with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League. “It needs to be a one-stop shop, period.”

The state agency that will regulate fracking, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, has warned it will not accept corporate trade secrets related to fracking because it would expose the agency to lawsuits to pry the documents loose.

The agency’s posture has forced the Mining and Energy Commission to scramble to come up with alternatives, such as allowing the companies hold the trade secrets, or putting the information in encrypted data storage banks. Those steps require someone to be available round-the-clock, possibly for years hence, to promptly release the information in an emergency.

“I’m concerned with emergency responders getting out to a site and knowing what they’re dealing with,” Womack said. Womack, a Gulf War veteran, is also an elected county commissioner in Lee County, believed to be the epicenter of North Carolina’s shale gas deposits.

States that allow fracking also allow companies to withhold sensitive data they deem to be trade secrets, but several states require that data to be turned over to state officials under seal. In North Carolina, state officials will not likely be entrusted with the data, requiring the creation of backup systems to gain access during emergencies.

Fracking operators are not required to disclose the chemicals they use under federal law, under a exemption to the Clean Water Act granted by Congress in 2005.

Fracking, an industry term for hydraulic fracturing, refers to a method of extracting natural gas from hard-to-reach shale rock formations. The practice is under moratorium in North Carolina until the Mining and Energy Commission writes about 120 rules and the legislature approves them or creates its own.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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