State Hydraulic Fracturing Disclosure Rules and Enforcement: A Comparison

Issue Brief
July 25, 2012

Advancements in hydraulic fracturing -- or "fracking" -– have fueled an explosion in domestic oil and gas development in recent years. Fracking is a technique in which large volumes of water, sand (or similar material), and chemicals are pumped into the ground at extremely high pressure to break up rocks containing oil and gas to release the resource.

It is essential that the public, and health and safety professionals, have full access to information on the constituents of hydraulic fracturing fluids and waste, and the details of how and where fracturing was performed. Often fracking takes place in close proximity to homes, schools, and workplaces. Yet, without requirements for disclosure, members of the communities in which it occurs have no right to information about the procedures or chemicals involved.

Health and Environmental Impacts of Fracking Chemicals

Many of the substances used in the fracking process are toxic. Some, like formaldehyde, are known carcinogens. There are significant risks associated with the release of dangerous substances used in fracking. Blow-outs have occurred during fracking operations and spills of fracking fluids and other chemicals have polluted streams and lakes. Fracking is a suspected cause of groundwater contamination.

Documented reports link fracking contamination with medically-confirmed health impacts in animals, including diseases, deaths, and second-generation birth defects. And contaminants from fracking have been found at levels that pose a threat to human health. After the fracking process is complete, a portion of the fluids that were pumped into the ground flow back to the surface. This wastewater is called "flowback" and, in addition to fracking chemicals, this flowback can also contain toxic substances that are naturally-occurring underground, including arsenic, barium, lead, mercury, and radioactive elements like radium.

The Importance of Comprehensive Hydraulic Fracturing Disclosure

Disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking, the waste generated and its management, and the details of how and where fracturing was completed, is essential for the following reasons:

  • Adequate pre-fracking disclosure allows owners and users of nearby water sources to conduct baseline testing to establish the quality of their water prior to hydraulic fracturing, including the presence or absence of identified chemical constituents of frack fluids.
  • Chemical disclosure is crucial to aid in determining the source of any subsequent groundwater contamination.
  • First responders need the information to appropriately respond to accidents and emergencies.
  • Medical professionals require full access to information on what their patients may have been exposed to and in what concentrations for diagnosis and treatment.
  • Chemical disclosure allows the public to fully assess the risks that chemical use, transport, and storage pose to their communities.
  • Disclosure of water use provides the public information about the impacts of fracking on state supplies of fresh water.
  • Disclosure of information regarding waste creation and disposition provides an accounting of the waste created, its contents, and the societal costs of its disposal.
  • A robust public disclosure regime is essential for scientific research that will provide a better understanding of the cumulative environmental and health effects of fracking and serve as a basis for well-informed policies to protect the public.
  • A disclosure regime highlights responsible corporate actors while calling attention to practices that jeopardize the environment and public health.

Disclosure does not, by itself, make fracking safer. An adequate regulatory regime must also include, among other things, standards requiring best practices in well siting and construction, spill and leak reduction and containment, pollution capture, waste disposal, and the minimization of impacts from wellpads, roads, and pipelines. However, a comprehensive disclosure rule is one important component of a full suite of fracking safeguards and is essential to investigate contamination that occurs when proper safeguards are not in place or accidents occur.

Additionally, hydraulic fracturing is only one step in the oil and gas exploration and development process. Each phase of oil and gas development poses risks to the environment and public health. Among these are air, water, and soil pollution, and the use of dangerous chemicals during other phases of development. The public should be provided with accurate information on all hazards posed by the oil and gas industry. Disclosure rules should provide the public with information concerning the hydraulic fracturing process, and also on practices and materials employed throughout the lifecycle of an oil and gas well.

Despite Claims that State Rules Have Done the Job, Work Remains to be Done

This analysis provides a comprehensive comparison of existing state disclosure requirements. It finds more than half of the states with hydraulic fracturing activity currently have no disclosure requirements at all. Of the existing state rules, none provide comprehensive disclosure. Enforcement of state rules is also found to be uneven.