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As fracking expands, so do calls for oversight

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The oil and gas industry’s success in cracking open underground shale-gas beds through hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling is something of a Catch-22 for operators.

Those drilling techniques have, for the first time, made it economically feasible to extract hard-to-reach hydrocarbons trapped in deep shale beds. That’s opened up vast new natural gas and oil deposits in places with little industry activity in the past, such as the Marcellus Basin in Pennsylvania.

It’s also given new life to old basins, such as the Permian in southeastern New Mexico and West Texas.

But public concern about environmental impacts has grown alongside the increase in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in shale-gas plays. That, in turn, is generating new state laws to regulate operations, and possibly stricter federal rules than currently on the books.

In New Mexico, the state Oil Conservation Division approved new rules last February, proposed by the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, to require companies to report chemicals used in fracking operations, something environmentalists have demanded in many states.

“The disclosure rule strengthens transparency,” said NMOGA President Steve Henke.

OCD Director Jami Bailey said the state created a form for companies to report the content of fracking fluids online.

“That gets filed with individual well files and it’s always accessible,” Bailey said. “It’s a searchable database, so we could extract things like how many wells have used specific (fracturing) components.”

But environmentalists criticize the rule because it doesn’t require disclosure of some chemical concentrations that companies consider “proprietary.”

That’s to protect “trade secrets” that companies say make their fluids more effective than competitors’, Bailey said.

More than 95 percent of fracking fluids are just sand and water, which are pumped down wells at high pressure to create fissures in shale beds. The sand wedges into cracks to create pathways for oil and gas extraction. Some chemicals are used to turn the fluid into a smooth, easy-flowing gel, and to add biocides to kill bacteria that can “sour” extracted fuels.

Environmentalists say disclosing those chemicals is essential to guard against potential groundwater contamination. Other states have stricter requirements.

“New Mexico has the weakest disclosure rules on fracking of the states that have done rule-making,” said Gwen Lachelt, director of Earthworks’ Oil and Gas Accountability Project.

In addition, Lachelt said hearings to modify the state’s “pit rule,” which requires strict measures to keep oil and gas liquids from seeping into water beds, could increase the danger of water contamination by fracturing fluids. The state will rule on those changes in September.

State-level debate, however, could be overshadowed by federal efforts to pass new regulations.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management released a draft rule in May to require complete disclosure of fracking fluids used on public lands. The Environmental Protection Agency is also studying the impacts of fracking. That could lead to inclusion of hydraulic fracturing in the Safe Drinking Water, Clean Water and Clean Air acts. It was exempted from those laws in the 2005 Energy Policy Act.

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