Nebraska is poised to join the growing number of states in requiring oil and gas drillers to disclose the chemicals they use in hydraulic fracturing operations
The Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is working on a rule that would require any company that uses hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, to register the chemicals it uses with a website called FracFocus.org. The website makes all data available to the public.
In fracking, drillers pump water, sand and chemicals into underground rock formations to fracture them, allowing small deposits of trapped oil and gas to flow out.
The technique has been around for decades but has come into widespread use only in the past decade or so. It has led to oil and gas booms in places such as North Dakota and Pennsylvania.
It also has led to backlash from residents who live near some of the wells and among environmentalists, who contend it can lead to groundwater contamination and even cause earthquakes.
Fracking has yet to come into widespread use in Nebraska. Even though there are thought to be significant oil and gas reserves in portions of the Niobrara shale and chalk formations in areas along the border with Wyoming and Colorado, there has been little drilling there and no big finds.
Bill Sydow, director of the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, estimated there are only about a dozen fracking wells drilled in the state each year. He said there never has been an incident of fracturing contaminating groundwater in the state.
There also has been little public backlash against fracking in Nebraska, Sydow said.
Despite the lack of activity and lack of public outcry, he said he and the Oil and Gas Conservation Commissioners felt it was important for the industry to be forthcoming and transparent.
"Nobody's got anything to hide," he said.
Earlier this year, Sydow testified against a bill in the Legislature, LB635, that would have mandated fracking chemical disclosure.
He said he testified against the bill because he felt it was not necessary: The Oil and Gas Conservation Commission already has the authority to require such disclosure.
Ken Winston, policy advocate for the Nebraska Sierra Club, said he's happy there is work going on to mandate fracking chemical disclosure in Nebraska, but he would prefer some other government agency be in charge of it.
"It would be better if this process were managed by some other agency, possibly the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality," he said.
Not only does the Oil and Gas Commission see its role as promoting the oil and gas industry, Winston said, but Sydow also has been an outspoken advocate for fracking, saying the chemicals used are safe.
Winston also said he has an issue with using FracFocus as the clearinghouse for disclosures about fracking chemicals.
"We have some concerns about using FracFocus, because that seems to be an industry-funded organization," he said.
The two-year-old website is paid for in part by the oil and gas industry and other private groups, but it also gets money from the U.S. Department of Energy.
It is managed by the Ground Water Protection Council and Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission. Stan Belieu, deputy director of the Nebraska Oil and Gas Commission, is president of the Ground Water Protection Council.
A dozen states already require drillers to disclose fracking chemicals on the site. Another eight states, including Nebraska, are considering it.
The federal government also is considering using FracFocus for fracking that occurs on federal lands.
Despite the endorsement from state and federal governments, FracFocus has plenty of critics. Environmental groups and others contend the website allows companies to avoid disclosure by declaring some chemicals as trade secrets.
And a Harvard University study released last month said the site is riddled with loopholes and that state governments should not be relying on it as a reporting tool.
Sydow said it could be a while before the proposed rule is implemented in Nebraska.
The Oil and Gas Commission has been working on it for more than a year. The commission held two public hearings this year and has another planned for June 25. After that, the proposed rule will have to be approved by the secretary of state, the governor and the attorney general, a process that could take months, Sydow said.