Chemical recipes used in fracking, the controversial method of extracting natural gas and oil by high-pressure ground injections, could be kept secret under legislation that passed the Virginia House of Delegates on Monday.
The House voted 59-37 in favor of legislation to exempt information about chemical concentrations from disclosure under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act as trade secrets of the companies seeking permits from the state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.
Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, involves a combination of water, chemicals and sand shot into the ground to release energy resources from hard-to-reach deposits inaccessible by other drilling methods.
Though not heavily used in Virginia, the procedure has stirred controversy and concerns about water contamination in other states, including Pennsylvania and North Dakota.
The issue could be coming to Virginia within a few years. Companies have shown interest in the area known as the Taylorsville basin east of Fredericksburg, stirring concerns in Caroline and King George counties. Since 2010, Texas-based Shore Exploration and Production Corp. has acquired 86,000 acres in the Middle Peninsula and Northern Neck.
Del. Roxann L. Robinson, R-Chesterfield, the sponsor of House Bill 1678, said on the House floor last week that the legislation had become a “transparency bill” after it was amended to only cover information about chemical concentrations, not the chemicals themselves.
“By protecting that actual recipe, it will foster more efficient and more advancements in the fracking industry,” Robinson said Friday during debate on the bill.
Companies that want to protect their fracking recipes would have to invoke the public records exemption and make a case why their information should be kept confidential. The state would have final say over whether the exemption applies.
Some lawmakers argued that the chemical concentrations alone can hold information vital to public safety.
Del. David L. Bulova, D-Fairfax, drew an analogy to a chemical used in swimming pools.
“A little bit of chlorine in that water is great,” Bulova said. “If you put in too much chlorine, that can be exceptionally dangerous.”
Bulova said he was concerned that Virginians who sense something amiss with their water could be blocked from investigating what might be in it.
“What this is about is the family who might notice a change in the smell or taste of their water who then contacts the Virginia Department of Health,” Bulova said.
“This bill doesn’t prevent our state agencies from talking to each other,” Robinson replied. “If there’s any kind of problem, they definitely can coordinate with each other.”
Robinson noted that she has a separate bill that explicitly authorizes the energy department to share information with other agencies and local officials in emergencies.
Five Republicans — Dels. Les R. Adams, R-Pittsylvania; Peter F. Farrell, R-Henrico; Robert G. Marshall, R-Prince William; Brenda L. Pogge, R-James City; and David E. Yancey, R-Newport News — joined most of the chamber’s Democrats in opposing the bill. Three other Republicans did not vote.
Del. Kaye Kory, D-Fairfax, voted in favor of the bill, but later said that her vote was in error and that she intended to oppose the measure
Similar legislation on fracking chemicals is pending in a Senate subcommittee.
Before becoming law, the measure would have to pass both chambers and be signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe.