Halliburton, Fracking and the N.C. Public Records Act

May 3, 2013: The Raleigh News and Observer  reports today on Halliburton’s opposition to a draft North Carolina rule on disclosure of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing. The Mining and Energy Commission’s Environmental Standards Committee had approved the draft rule for consideration by the full commission today. Commission chair, Jim Womack, told committee members yesterday that the rule would not be taken up by the commission as planned because of objections from Halliburton lawyers.

State law (G.S. 113-391)  specifically directs the  Mining and Energy Commission  to adopt rules for:

“Disclosure of chemicals and constituents used in oil and gas exploration, drilling, and production, including hydraulic fracturing fluids, to State regulatory agencies and to local government emergency response officials, and, with the exception of those items constituting trade secrets, as defined in G.S. 66‑152(3), and that are designated as confidential or as a trade secret under G.S. 132‑1.2, requirements for disclosure of those chemicals and constituents to the public.” G.S. 113-391(a)(5)(h).

You can find more here  on protection of  trade secret information under the  confidentiality provisions of the N.C. Public Records Act.

The draft rule approved by the MEC’s Environmental Standards Committee would have required oil and gas operations to disclose all chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluid to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources soon after fracturing the well.  Under the draft rule, information considered to be a “trade secret” under the state’s Public Records Acts would not be disclosed to the public. Based on the news story and other accounts of the committee meeting on Thursday, Halliburton objects to disclosure of trade secret information even to state regulatory staff except in response to actual environmental harm or a specific health concern.

An earlier post talked about the implications of only requiring  disclosure of trade secret information to  regulators after environmental damage or health effects have occurred.  There are at least two potential problems: 1.  in the aftermath of an emergency (such as a spill, leak or fire),  it would take more time to get information to state and local emergency responders;  and 2. groundwater contamination may not be discovered for years after an undetected  leak or spill occurs and lack of complete state records on the chemicals used to fracture wells  will  make it difficult to identify the contamination source.

The current controversy over the chemical disclosure rule raises several legal and policy questions for DENR and the Mining and Energy Commission:

●   Would a rule allowing the operator to withhold trade secret information from state regulators be consistent with G.S. 113-391? The law clearly protects trade secret information from disclosure to the public, but seems to intend disclosure to state regulators and in some circumstances to local emergency response agencies.

●   Is there reason to protect oil and gas industry trade secrets to a greater degree than trade secret information from other industries? Many state agencies receive trade secret information  and the Public Records Act allows that  information to be protected from public disclosure. The Public Records Act does not allow other industries to withhold information  needed by  state regulators on the grounds that the information is a trade secret.

● What is the right balance between the industry’s interest in holding information on hydraulic fracturing chemicals very close and the state’s need to understand and address risks to surface water, groundwater and public health?

● Can the state meet its responsibilities with something less than full disclosure of the chemicals used to fracture oil and gas wells?