Texas is poised to become the first state to require gas drillers to publicly disclose the chemicals they use to release natural gas from tight rock formations, a measure that could set the stage for other states and Congress to move ahead with their own initiatives to regulate hydraulic fracturing.
But environmentalists caution the bill, while a step in the right direction, remains too protective of industry.
"It's a glass half full kind of thing, pretty good job, pretty good legislation, but we didn't go far enough," said Cyrus Reed, conservation director of the Sierra Club's Lone Star chapter.
The measure would require mandatory disclosure of many chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing -- or "fracking" -- process. Approved Thursday by the House and taken up by the Senate, the bill in its current form has widespread support among both Republicans and Democrats and GOP Gov. Rick Perry is expected to sign it.
Fracking, along with horizontal drilling, lets drillers penetrate tight rock formations by pressure pumping chemical-laced water into the ground and allowing oil and gas to flow out. The method has become more controversial as it is used in more places across the country to get to once out-of-reach minerals. Some environmental groups and landowners fear fracking is causing water contamination. The industry insists it's safe.
Texas Rep. James Keffer, the Republican energy committee chairman who helped oversee passage of the bill, said the more he worked to find a way for industry to coexist with urban residents, the more convinced he became that fracking fears had to be addressed.
"There are concerns: What's going down the hole? Is it poisonous? What is it doing to the water supply?" Keffer said. "I felt like the time had to come to get it off the table."
Environmental groups argue the bill isn't strong enough because operators would only be required to post on a website the maximum concentrations of chemicals regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Unregulated chemicals only have to be listed without the amount used. Operators also can opt out of full disclosure if they fear trade secrets could be harmed, in which case they would only have disclose what fluids they use to the agency that oversees drilling.
Still, the law would put Texas ahead of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Congress and several other states trying to pass similar measures.
The initiative's success in Texas -- where oil and gas industry friendly Republicans hold a supermajority in the House, a majority in the Senate and fill every statewide elected office -- has surprised many. The Texas Oil and Gas Association, an industry lobbyist, didn't expect fracking chemicals to be an issue at all this session, said Debbie Hastings, the group's vice president for environmental affairs.
Drillers are reluctant to reveal too much information about the chemical content of their process because each company does the fracking a little differently, Hastings explained. While they may all use similar ingredients, their recipes could vastly differ and many have invested millions of dollars in coming up with special formulas for achieving maximum production in individual reservoirs and shale formations. These are "trade secrets" that are jealously guarded, she added.
Jacquelyn Pless, a research analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan organization that helps coordinate policymaking between states, said fracking is an issue in many states -- with the focus being regulation of the fluids. At least six states have considered or are reviewing legislation that would require full disclosure.
In Arkansas, a bill was presented and withdrawn. California is considering a bill that would require companies to disclose the information to a state supervisor who would then post it on a website. Wyoming's agency that oversees drilling requires disclosure, but the rule has not made it into law. Pennsylvania is considering legislation that would require disclosure to the state, but not necessarily the public. And the so-called "Frack Act" -- which would make full disclosure federal law -- was reintroduced to both the U.S. House and the Senate in March.
The EPA, meanwhile, "is calling on industry to be more transparent about the use of fracking chemicals," spokeswoman Betsaida Alcantara said in an email. For a national study on the issue, it has requested the information from nine major drillers, all of whom have complied. Yet there are no rules in place requiring disclosure. That's why Texas' effort is encouraging to some.
"If you've got the industry supporting something in Texas and they're putting stuff on a website, it's got to spur things in other states," said Reed of the Sierra Club.