Exposing The Toxic Chemicals Used in Fracking

The Obama Adminstration moves toward demanding full disclosure of the fluids used in hydraulic fracturing

Walt Desatoff looks out window at oil field across the street
Walt Desatoff looks out the window of his bedroom at the oil field across the street from his home in Shafter, CA. A few years ago the field was filled with roses.(Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)

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Today the Environmental Protection Agency surprised us with good news. It took the first concrete step in response to a petition we filed in 2011 on behalf of more than 100 public health, environmental, and government transparency groups concerned about fracking.  We asked the EPA to adopt a rule requiring that chemical manufacturers and processors report a wide range of information about the chemical substances and mixtures used in oil and gas operations. The EPA announced today that it would take public comment on whether it should move forward with a proposed rule to require the reporting of these chemicals.

There are three reasons we need a reporting rule:

First, what we know about how dangerous the chemicals are is unnerving. We have learned that many of the hundreds of chemicals used in fracking are toxic and that some are endocrine disrupters, causes of respiratory problems, or known carcinogens. These are just the chemicals we know about. There are many chemicals that are being concealed from us. We can assume that these are just as bad.

Second, some states ask the fracking companies, not the chemical manufacturers, to disclose the chemicals in their frack fluids. The fracking companies sometimes insist that even they don’t know what chemicals are in the fluids, because the manufacturers say the ingredients are trade secrets. Disclosure ends there. The information goes to nobody: Not the states, not the EPA, not the fracking companies, and certainly not the public. But the public feels the harms.

Third, the oil and gas industry has a bad track record on transparency, so we can’t rely on a voluntary system to get full information. We need an enforceable rule that requires reporting from all manufacturers and processors of chemicals used in the development process. At the very least, the EPA should know everything.  Also, because the EPA has one of the better systems for vetting claims that the chemicals are trade secrets or otherwise confidential, required reporting increases the chances that the public will get the information, too. 

We have been waiting a long time for action on our petition. We are glad to see the EPA take this step, and we urge it to move quickly in issuing a rule to uncover the chemicals used in fracking.  In the meantime, people who are concerned about fracking need to speak up and submit comments to the EPA, demanding a comprehensive reporting rule that protects public health and the environment.

From 2008–2019, Deborah was the managing attorney of the Northeast regional office, based in New York, where she supervised and conducted legal advocacy and litigation related to fracking, climate change and environmental health.

Earthjustice’s Washington, D.C., office works at the federal level to prevent air and water pollution, combat climate change, and protect natural areas. We also work with communities in the Mid-Atlantic region and elsewhere to address severe local environmental health problems, including exposures to dangerous air contaminants in toxic hot spots, sewage backups and overflows, chemical disasters, and contamination of drinking water. The D.C. office has been in operation since 1978.