“Our objective is to get as full a disclosure as we can, in consideration of trade secret laws. That means we’ll probably lean more to the most expansive set of standards that we can find in any other state.”
That was Jim Womack, chairman of the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission, speaking to the Indy in December 2012. Depending on who you ask, Womack—a county commissioner in the fracking heartland of Lee County—either delivered on his statement or failed in that goal when his commission unanimously approved a set of chemical disclosure rules Tuesday.
The rules approved Tuesday are complicated, allowing drilling companies to maintain trade secrets in the chemical cocktails they use for fracking operations. However, commissioners say, companies will be required to prove the necessity for a trade secret in “closed-door” meetings with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).
Proponents say the rule is necessary to maintain trade secrets for drillers. Opponents say it allows fracking companies to continue to pump nebulous chemicals underground, despite widespread reports of environmental pollution and water contamination.
Ray Covington, vice chairman for the commission, said Wednesday that DENR will not keep records on those trade secrets and it’s unclear who will make the final decision at DENR on whether a chemical is justified in its secrecy.
Covington, a Lee County landowner who backs drilling, said he will leave that to DENR Secretary John Skvarla to decide the process, a move that may give some pause. Skvarla, an appointee of Gov. Pat McCrory, has already drawn fire from environmentalists over a statement last January indicating that he believed the science of global warming to be up for debate.
His agency also caused an uproar last September when it turned down federal grant money for baseline water testing in the fracking regions, a key measure for determining the environmental impact of drilling.
“There’s just so much involved in this that the public just does not understand,” Covington said. “The rule set that we passed is absolutely one of the best chemical disclosure sets in the country.”
According to Covington, North Carolinians should not be concerned about those secret chemicals. “It’s not the bad stuff that the companies are worried about,” he said. “They’re trying to be the cleanest and greenest. There are a number of companies that are producing trade secrets that are clean and green and even edible and they don’t want to share that with their competitors.”
Not everyone is so heartened.
“The disclosure rule has some good provisions, but overall fails the public safety test,” says Cassie Gavin, director of government relations for the N.C. Sierra Club, an environmental group.
Gavin pointed out the commission’s disclosure ruling includes a complicated process for emergency first-responders to determine chemical contents following a spill or leak at a fracking site.
Federal laws require drillers to keep details on the chemicals available for emergency responders on-site, but off-site, responders would be forced to contact the energy company for more information. Covington said the company will be required to provide that information within a two-hour time span, a “reasonable amount of time,” according to Covington.
But Hope Taylor, director of environmental nonprofit and fracking opponent Clean Water for N.C., said the provision is “appallingly burdensome and could result in needless and dangerous delays, costing the health and lives of responders, workers and other victims.”
The Sierra Club also criticized the commission for approving rules that will prevent DENR from holding records on fracking trade secrets.
“Why is the state agency charged with protecting the environment avoiding knowledge about fracking chemicals?” Gavin said. “If this information is too hot for DENR to handle, how can they assure public safety?”
The rules passed Tuesday come after one set of disclosure rules was pulled from commission consideration last May, reportedly because energy giant Halliburton took issue. On Wednesday, Covington defended that move, insisting the old set was pulled because Womack wanted more “stringent” rules.
The Mining and Energy Commission is expected to finalize its fracking recommendations in November, with drilling possible for 2015 in North Carolina. It’s important to note, however, that state lawmakers can approve their own regulations, regardless of the commission’s recommendations.