Full Disclosure: Schlumberger, Hydraulic Fracking and the Public Access Debate

Last Updated Sep 30, 2009 11:57 AM EDT

Oilfield services giant Schlumberger is pushing its suppliers for permission to reveal the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, a technique used to access oil and gas trapped in hard-to-reach shale formations, Bloomberg reported Tuesday.

Fracking has been used for decades. But it has become the subject of a recent regulatory and public disclosure debate spurred by standalone bills in the House and Senate that seek to end an exemption for hydraulic fracturing within the Safe Drinking Water Act. The Environmental Protection Agency would regulate the process and new public disclosure rules would be implemented, under measures outlined in the bill.

Hydraulic fracturing pumps a mix water, sand and a small portion of chemicals under high pressure through a steel casing to reach oil and gas reservoirs typically located between 6,000 feet and 10,000 feet underground. The high pressure mix causes the shale rock to break, unleashing the trapped oil and gas and allowing it to flow into the well. The mixture is removed, then put into open pits for evaporation and eventually trucked to a disposal site.

The industry opposes legislation that would federally regulate the process, a widely used method credited for increasing natural gas production in North America. Industry advocates argue the information is already available to regulatory agencies and emergency personnel. There are proprietary concerns as well.

But a few -- namely gas producers -- have talked about voluntarily making the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing more accessible to the public in an effort to educate and quell fears.

For example, Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon told an energy conference last week the industry needed to demystify the process, disclose the chemicals used and search for alternatives, according to a Reuters report.

But Schlumberger is the only oilfield services company to use the full disclosure rhetoric, a departure from the rest of the industry. And it's worth noting because the message is coming from the No. 2 hydraulic fracturing provider in the world, behind only Halliburton.

Halliburton, which has developed its own fracturing mixture, has the most at risk. The company is the No. 1 hydraulic fracturing company in the world. If forced to disclose its chemical formula, it would stand to lose its domination in the industry.

Technically, the chemicals used in the process are available. Each additive brought onto a well location is accompanied by a materials safety data sheet, which identifies the materials and outlines proper ways to use them, Chesapeake Energy spokesman Jim Gipson noted in an e-mail.

Safety data sheets are used in industrial plants for emergency personnel responding to a spill or accident. The sheets are also available for review by state regulatory agencies. Chesapeake has posted information on its Web site about chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing as well because "as we said, the information is already available and we believe the more the public understands the better for everyone."

But the industry advocacy groups like Energy In Depth, which works with the Independent Petroleum Association of America, say simply providing a list of chemicals will only create confusion and unnecessary fear.

"Context is everything," said Chris Tucker, spokesman with Energy In Depth, in a phone interview Tuesday. "If you're a member of the public and are handed a list and see hydrochloric acid being used -- even though it's a negligible amount -- that's going to catch your attention. The MSDS (materials safety data sheets) does not provide the proper context."