Environmentalists ask feds for drilling chemical disclosure

Environmentalists on Wednesday petitioned federal regulators to force energy companies to disclose chemicals unleashed by oil and gas drilling.

The move is the latest gambit by environmental activists to shed more light on pollution from domestic oil and gas development, as a surge of drilling sends rigs to North Dakota, Pennsylvania, West Texas and other parts of the country.

Although electric utilities, coal mining operations, refineries and other industrial facilities are required to report chemical releases to a 26-year-old national database known as the Toxics Release Inventory, oil and gas wellhead operations generally are exempt from the mandates.

That could change as a result of the petition filed by more than a dozen groups with the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday. The document asks the EPA to add the oil and gas extraction industry to the list of entities that have to file annual reports on released chemicals to the TRI.

If EPA regulators went along, that would fold in not just drilling but also related activities at the wellhead, before oil and gas is ready for transport to customers and refiners. Under environmentalists’ petition, companies would be forced to report chemicals released in drilling and completing wells as well as compression operations and processing at fractionators that split gas into separate components.

Disclosures also would be required from hydraulic fracturing operations, in which mixtures of water, sand and chemicals are pumped underground to release natural gas and oil from dense rock formations.

Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project that spearheaded the campaign, stressed that the foundation of the TRI was a deeply held belief that the public has a right to know what kind of pollutants are being released from neighboring facilities.

We’re asking the EPA to “honor those values,” Schaeffer said. “EPA has the power to add other sectors that ought to be reporting, and we’re asking them today to exercise the authority.”

Jane Davenport, a senior attorney with the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, said the reporting mandate should apply broadly.

“The oil and gas industry should not get a pass from statutes that apply to other industries,” she said, noting that the industry already enjoys some exemptions from provisions in the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws.

First created after the fatal chemical accident at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India more than two decades ago, the TRI’s information is easily accessible online.

Industries that are required to send information to the TRI have sometimes complained that the reporting mandate is too burdensome. The oil and gas industry also has resisted some other efforts for federal-level disclosure of aspects of its operations; for instance, when it comes to revealing chemicals involved in hydraulic fracturing, the industry has generally favored a voluntary process, including the website FracFocus.

Energy In Depth noted that under both Republican and Democratic administrations, the EPA has decided not to require toxic chemical disclosure from oil and gas drilling activities.

“An oil and gas well isn’t a massive industrial facility, and underground injection of waste water, which is already regulated under a different federal law, does not constitute a hazardous ‘release’ into the environment,” Energy In Depth said in a statement. “So what you have here is essentially a messaging exercise. The bet they’re making is that most folks won’t know what TRI is actually used for, or care to even look it up.”

Although the TRI originally applied solely to manufacturing sectors, Congress gave EPA the power to expand the list, something the agency has done periodically over the last two decades.

But industry leaders stress that Congress never intended TRI to apply to the oil and gas industry — only to chemical facilities in response to the Bhopal disaster.

“Congress made a conscious decision in enacting the TRI (law) . . . in 1986 to focus on the types of large manufacturing facilities that were believed to be creating risks to individuals who live in the neighborhoods in the vicinity of such facilities,” said the Independent Petroleum Association of America in a fact sheet on the database. “In adopting this approach, Congress chose not to impose TRI reporting requirements on a wide range of other types of commercial and industrial operations, including but certainly not limited to facilities involved in the exploration and production of oil and natural gas.”

Where many of the entities that have to report data to the TRI now have operations in one place for a long period of time, “oil and natural gas exploration and production facilities are generally widely scattered,” IPAA noted.

Environmentalists pushing for the disclosure say the information could help residents know more about the chemicals being released at nearby facilities, and also shed light on the materials that are flowing back to the surface after frac fluids are injected underground.

The flowback and produced water that pores out of the ground after a well is hydraulically fractured can contain naturally occurring radioactive material.

Entities subject to the TRI are required to report releases of any of a list of 650 chemicals, whether they are sent into the air, landfills, water or other sites.