Thursday, December 16, 2010

Disclosure of Fracking Ingredients May Become More Transparent

Fracking has been in the news a lot lately.  Especially for the questions surrounding the chemicals used in the process.  What is fracking, you ask?  In short, fracking, which is a shortened form of hydraulic fracturing, is the process by which oil and gas explorers use chemicals and fluids under pressure to force the expansion of cracks (fractures) in rocks as a means to increase the output of a well.  Recently there has been a lot of pressure (no pun intended) on oil companies to publicly reveal the chemicals used in fracking fluids.  There has been resistance to this idea, largely on confidential business information grounds, but that might be changing.

This week the primary trade association for the oil industry, the American Petroleum Institute (API), joined with other oil and gas trade associations to endorse a plan in which companies would voluntarily disclose the chemicals found in fracking fluids. The plan was developed by Groundwater Protection Council (GWPC) and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC).   In endorsing the plan, API noted in its press release that:

 “The states are the proper authority for determining requirements for chemical disclosure; so a program developed by the GWPC, and endorsed by the IOGCC is a step toward a solution on disclosure,” said API’s CEO, Jack Gerard. “But it is critical that we ensure confidential business information is protected and we will work with the GWPC to improve the reporting elements — which ultimately should enable maximum participation and enhance the program’s overall effectiveness.”  
The key here is that the plan, which involves development of an electronic registry, is both voluntary and based in the states rather than being federal level mandatory requirements.  One concern from the NGOs, however, is that the proposed plan could delay any actual disclosure for quite some time as the registry is developed over several years.

Either way, all sides agree that hydraulic fracturing helps to improve the amount of oil and gas that can be extracted from any given well.  That's important both from a cost-effective and efficiency point of view, but also from the understanding that the more that can be extracted from wells already drilled reduces the pressure on drilling more wells.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Washington State Moves Forward on Children's Safe Chemical Rules in Lieu of TSCA Action

I have mentioned previously here that with TSCA chemical reform trudging through Congress on the federal level, the States have continued to move forward with attempts to protect human health and the environment on a more local scale.  One of these efforts is the Children's Safe Product Act (CSPA) passed by Washington State in 2008.  While Governor Gregoire has suspended rulemaking in general because of the state of the economy, she has exempted this particular rule to continue through the development process.  The goal of the proposed law is to focus on protecting children from toxic chemicals.

According to the Department of Ecology, which manages health and safety issues in Washington, the CSPA consists of two parts:

The first part "limited the amount of lead, cadmium and phthalates allowed in children's products sold in Washington after July 1, 2009. These standards were substantially preempted when the U.S. Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) in July, 2008. The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission will enforce this act."  So this part is essentially dormant.

"The second part of the CSPA requires Ecology, in consultation with the Department of Health, to develop a list of chemicals that manufacturers must report on. As required by the law, chemicals on the list are toxic and have either been found in children’s products or have been documented to be present in human tissue (blood, breast milk, etc.). However, the mere presence of these chemicals in children’s products does not necessarily indicate that there is a risk of exposure." 

Rules to implement this second part of the CSPA are currently open for public comment until December 31st.  These draft rule list 59 chemicals considered to be of high concern to children.  Most are familiar to people in the chemical control business as they have been targeted by other states as well as federal and international laws.  The law stipulates that the chemicals selected must be known to be toxic, commonly found in products used by children, are used in home environments, and found in biomonitoring of human blood and tissue samples. 

Once the final rules are issued, "manufacturers of children's products must report to Ecology if their products contain these chemicals."  These notifications will be required by law on a particular schedule, but the CSPA does not stipulate what happens once they are notified.  Presumably the state is interested in collecting data on what chemicals, and in what volumes, are used in the state so they can take any needed action.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Inspector General Inquires into EPA's Voluntary Children's Chemical Evaluation Program

The Voluntary Children’s Chemical Evaluation Program (VCCEP), which advocacy groups had criticized for years as ineffective and a "stall" by industry, was halted by the Obama administration.  Now it seems EPA’s Inspector General (IG) has launched an inquiry into the program because EPA has indicated it intends to model other programs on VCCEP.  The IG says it will determine “whether there are alternative mechanisms for achieving children’s health protection goals from chemical exposure.”

VCCEP was a product of the 1998 Chemical Right to Know Initiative, "the goal of which was to give citizens information on the effects of chemicals to enable them to make wise choices in the home and marketplace."  VCCEP itself was launched in December of 2000, and for many years was a focal point for EPA to work with industry to assess the potential effects of 23 chemicals on children's health.  Of the 23, only 20 were actually sponsored, with the chemicals selected being some for which children had a high likelihood of exposure. The intent was to have companies that manufactured or imported these chemicals to volunteer to provide information on health effects, exposure, risk, and data needs. Thirty-five companies in 10 consortia responded.

Unfortunately, 10 years after it was initiated the program seems to have not gotten past its initial pilot program.  Like the voluntary High Production Volume Chemical Challenge, the voluntary nature of the program resulted in actual participation dropping off as soon as the program fell out of the public's field of view.

The goal of the IG review is to learn from this experience before EPA initiates a new effort to assess the effects of chemicals on children's health.  Given the slow movement of TSCA reform in Congress, and the change in power structure for the next two years leading into a presidential election, EPA and others are looking for ways to carry on their mandate to protect public health, especially that of children.

More information can be found on the VCCEP program web site.

Monday, December 13, 2010

AGU Fall Meeting Attracts Nearly 20,000 Scientists

It's December and if you're in San Francisco you might be one of the nearly 20,000 scientists attending the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, the worldwide scientific organization of mostly earth and space scientists (aka geoscientists).  From December 13-17th they will gather to present - and listen to - over 18,000 platform and poster presentations on the science.  For anyone who has never been to a scientific meeting before, this is what science is about when you get out of your lab or field site.  Knowledge.

With the Cancun climate meetings just wrapping up, the AGU meeting is guaranteed to have many animated discussions about science related to climate.  Scientists will find out what others have been working on, argue with each other in the hallways, and yes, laugh about the good old days back in the stone ages.

As big as this meeting is (and it's not even the biggest scientific meeting), only about a third of the worldwide membership will be able to attend.  According to its web site, "AGU membership encompasses more than 58,000 individuals from over 135 countries."  The goal of membership "is to unite Earth, atmospheric, oceanic, hydrologic, space, and planetary scientists by providing a dynamic forum for the geophysical community through scientific journals, meetings, electronic mail, a weekly newspaper, scientific and technical committee activities, and several online data and information services."

In other words, a way to share information about new discoveries, new data, and potential areas of further research.

Information about the fall meeting can be found here.  A PDF of the program book can be downloaded here (warning: it's 123 MB so takes a while to download).