HELENA, Mont. (CN) – Two environmental groups and a handful of landowners filed a lawsuit Tuesday to force the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation to make well operators disclose the chemicals used in fracking.
Under rules adopted by the board in 2011, gas and oil companies can withhold from the board – and the public – what specific chemical ingredients are used in the fracking fluids until the operation is complete. The plaintiffs say this deprives landowners of their ability to effectively determine the baseline quality of water sources on their land, which undermines their ability to establish the source of subsequent contamination.
The lack of disclosure also limits the landowners’ ability to investigate the health and environmental risks that fracking may pose, according to the lawsuit filed by the Montana Environmental Information Center, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and landowners Mary Anne Mercer, David Katz, Anne Moses, Jack and Bonnie Martinell, Willis Weight, and David Lehnherr.
“My family home is less than a mile away from numerous fracked oil wells on the edge of the Bakken oil field,” Mercer said. “I worry about what the potentially toxic solutions used for fracking are doing to the soil and water of the land that I’ll always call home.”
The lawsuit is asking Lewis and Clark District Court Judge Kathy Seeley to overturn the board’s September 2016 decision that rejected a request to strengthen the state’s fracking chemical disclosure rules.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves using high pressure to pump millions of gallons of chemical-laced water underground to more actively release gas and oil deposits. The precise composition of the chemicals used by various companies are highly guarded trade secrets.
Linda Nelson, chair of the oil and gas board, said late Tuesday that she had heard of but hadn’t read the lawsuit, and declined to comment. She referred questions to Jim Halvorson, the board’s administrator and a petroleum geologist, but he was in meetings and unavailable.
However, Jessica Sena, the communications adviser for the Montana Petroleum Association, said that chemicals compose only 0.5 percent of the fracking fluid; the other 99.5 percent is largely salt water.
She noted that Montana’s Uniform Trade Secrets Act protects proprietary information and allows companies to be competitive. The act is less stringent than similar federal legislation that was passed last year.
“Those chemicals basically are different emulsifying agents; I compare them to having a greasy pan, and you need dish soap to clean it,” Sena said. “Some of it can be like a liquid gel that creates suction to suck (the gas and oil) to the surface. The majority of the chemicals are in your everyday household cleaning products. It just comes down to the ability to compete.”
Earthjustice attorney Katherine O’Brien, who is representing the coalition in the lawsuit, notes that operators in Wyoming already are required to disclose information about the chemical makeup of the fracking fluid – proving that disclosure is workable for the industry.
“Montanans have the right to know what chemicals oil and gas operators plan to pump into the ground on their farms and ranches, and near their homes, so they can take steps to protect their property and health,” she said.