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The Oil and the Glory

Are frackers becoming warmer and fuzzier?

Texas, the deliriously pro-oil birthplace of modern hydraulic fracturing — the method used to crack open shale and extract its gas and oil — is about to force all drillers by law to do what many opposed: mandatorily disclose many of the chemicals that they inject into the Earth. As of Feb. 1, drillers must ...

Dimitar Dilkoff  AFP/Getty Images
Dimitar Dilkoff AFP/Getty Images

Texas, the deliriously pro-oil birthplace of modern hydraulic fracturing — the method used to crack open shale and extract its gas and oil — is about to force all drillers by law to do what many opposed: mandatorily disclose many of the chemicals that they inject into the Earth. As of Feb. 1, drillers must also reveal how much water they use, writes Kate Galbraith in the Texas Tribune. The question is to what degree Texas’ move – six other U.S. states also require disclosure, writes NPR’s Scott Detrow — will defuse critics who portray the fracking industry only a bit less demonically than Salem did its witches.

Of all the ways devised to provide energy to the world, none today seems to excite greater passions than hydraulic fracturing, known for short as fracking. The practice has generated a frenzied gas rush in the United States, reports Bloomberg, creating both great wealth and geopolitical turbulence as an unexpected bonanza has shifted the global energy balance. At once, the U.S. has shifted from a gas deficit to a huge surplus, cutting electricity prices last year in half, according to Bloomberg, and China may go the same way. Russia’s powerful gas primacy in Europe has been undermined.

Against this, fracking has sparked a robust protest movement that accuses drillers of poisoning drinking water, triggering earthquakes, and ruining roads and landscapes. Bulgaria last week, for instance, issued a moratorium on fracking (Sofia protest pictured above), joining France and Quebec as places stopping the practice. Such resistance has been egged on by intense industry secrecy, along with the traditional fierce independence of the oil patch.

The chemicals subject to disclosure rules are part of a water-and-sand-based cocktail that drillers inject at tremendous pressure into underground shale in order to gain access to the natural gas, oil and other liquids locked within it. People living near fracking sites have sought a list of the chemicals, but drilling companies long said the cocktails are proprietary and that disclosure would cost them competitive advantage.

But as opposition has escalated, drillers, knocked back on their heels, seem to have started to acclimate to the idea of adding substance to an already vigorous pro-fracking PR campaign. For the last year or so, companies have been listing many of their fracking chemicals at a website called fracfocus.org. Texas’ disclosure will be on the same site.

Critics say the Texas law falls short. For instance, it does not require that drillers make their disclosures easy to navigate by making them searchable on the Internet. Neighboring Colorado’s regulations include such a search provision, notes the Environmental Defense Fund, a prime fracking critic. Fracfocus.org says it will be searchable by Jan. 1, 2013.

Passions could ebb if the industry can make the disclosures appear to be sincere, and then follow up with more substantive efforts at transparency to calm the nerves of worried homeowners.

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