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Environment & Science

AQMD approves rule requiring disclosure of fracking operations

Protestors demonstrate against fracking outside of the California Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in July 2012.
Protestors demonstrate against fracking outside of the California Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in July 2012.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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The board of the the South Coast Air Quality Management District voted unanimously Friday to force oil and gas companies to be more transparent when they engage in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. 

Oil and gas firms must now notify the AQMD when they’re planning to frack at a well. They’ll also have to disclose which chemicals they’re going to use. Regulators want to track whether those chemicals are adding to air pollution. AQMD officials say the disclosure rule is the first of its kind in the country. 

During fracking, crews shoot a high pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the ground to break loose oil or gas trapped in the rock. Some environmental activists and people in communities near fracking operations say the process could create air and water pollution, and affect seismic activity. 

The vote for the new rule came despite objections from some representatives of the oil and gas industry. They said the chemical mixes companies inject into wells during fracking are valuable trade secrets. Steven Flaherty of Halliburton said his company intends to protect its competitive advantage.

"We will turn our trade secrets over to the district if in fact there is a robust regulation that shows us those secrets will be protected," he said. "We don’t believe this rule currently has those protections in place."

But lawyers for the air district say the new rule gives companies the opportunity to appeal if they want more secrecy for their chemical formulas.

No state rule currently requires the depth of disclosure that the AQMD's new rule will. Oil and gas producers in California list some chemicals they use on an industry-maintained website, either voluntarily or in response to local rules.  L.A. County imposes monitoring and disclosure requirements on firms that carry out fracking operations in the Inglewood oil fields. An executive with Plains Exploration, the only company currently operating in the Inglewood oil fields, testified Friday that his firm doesn't believe the AQMD rule is necessary, but it will comply with it.

About 275 facilities in Los Angeles and Orange counties maintain more than 4,000 active wells, mostly in L.A. People living near oil and gas production wells in Wilmington, Baldwin Hills, and Montebello told regulators Friday that monitoring fracking would be important for their health and safety. 

Regulators plan to use the rule to gather data for the next two years. The goal is to lay a foundation for limits on fracking if it turns out the process is making the air dirtier. 

This story was updated at 5:19 p.m. on April 5, 2013