WASHINGTON (AP) - A website partially funded by the oil and gas industry could be a "constructive" tool for federal regulators as they consider requiring public disclosure of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing operations, Senate Energy Committee Chairman Ron Wyden said Thursday.
Wyden, D-Ore., stopped short of endorsing the website, FracFocus.org, but said it could be helpful as lawmakers and federal agencies consider ways to regulate hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.
Fracking involves pumping huge volumes of water, sand and chemicals underground to split open rocks to allow oil and gas to flow. Improved technology has allowed energy companies to gain access to huge stores of natural gas underneath states from Wyoming to New York but has raised widespread concerns that it might lead to groundwater contamination and even earthquakes.
Wyden and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, held a series of informational forums this month to explore an ongoing natural gas boom. Wyden said he hopes to devise federal legislation that sets a minimum standard for fracking while giving "appropriate deference" to states.
"Clearly FracFocus is seen as a constructive tool by a number of senators," Wyden said after the third and final session. He called FracFocus promising but added that "it could be improved," mainly by setting standards for how the names of chemicals used in fracking operations are disclosed.
The 2-year-old website, formed by industry and intergovernmental groups, has drawn increased scrutiny following a draft fracking rule issued last week by the Interior Department. The federal proposal would rely on FracFocus to track the chemicals used in fracking operations on public lands.
The online database is managed by two Oklahoma-based groups of state regulators and funded in part by the oil and gas industry and the Energy Department, along with private grants. Environmental groups and other critics say FracFocus has loose reporting standards and allows companies to avoid disclosure by declaring certain chemicals trade secrets. A report by Harvard Law School last month said the site is plagued by loopholes, adding that government reliance on FracFocus as a regulatory tool is "misplaced or premature."
Energy companies and a group that runs the site defended FracFocus, saying it offers a host of information on fracking chemicals used by more than 400 companies in about 45,000 wells across the country. The site is used as regulatory tool by a dozen states, with eight more considering whether to require drillers to use it.
The website is scheduled for a major upgrade on June 1, which will allow greater search capability and improve the site's coordination with state regulators, said Stan Belieu, deputy director of the Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Belieu serves as president of the Ground Water Protection Council, an association of state water regulators that runs FracFocus along with the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission. Both groups are based in Oklahoma City.
Representatives of a half-dozen energy companies, including industry giants Halliburton and Anadarko Petroleum, said Thursday they use the website as a preferred way to boost public confidence in fracking.
Clay Bretches, an Anadarko vice president, said "quality regulation" is important to the industry, but that it should primarily be state-based "to account for differences in geology, topography, population" and other regional factors.
Marc Edwards, a senior vice president at Halliburton, said there has never been a single, provable instance in which fracking chemicals have contaminated groundwater, despite widespread claims to the contrary by environmental groups.
Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, called Edwards' contention misleading. Oil and gas drilling has frequently resulted in air and water pollution, she said, citing a recent Scranton Times-Tribune article reporting that oil and gas development damaged the water supplies for at least 161 Pennsylvania homes, farms, churches and businesses between 2008 and 2012. The article cited letters and enforcement orders written by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Mall said federal regulation was needed to serve as a model for states, adding that any website used by federal regulators must adhere to federal open-records laws and auditing standards, as well as set out clear rules for exemptions for trade secrets.
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