“Trade Secrets” Obscure First Look at Toxic Brew in L.A. Air from Oil Drilling

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Oil and gas companies drilling in Los Angeles and Orange counties using fracking and acidization have a secret—actually, they have 5,050 secrets.

That’s the number of times they used chemicals in the past year to facilitate the often toxic extraction processes and refused to identify them for the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) because they are “trade secrets.”

One year after the AQMD required companies to submit basic information, for the first time, about their drilling operations in the two counties, a few things are known, according to a study of the data by the Center for Biological Diversity, Physicians for Social Responsibility–Los Angeles, Communities for a Better Environment, and the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment.

The oil and gas industry reported 477 fracking, acidization and gravel-packing operations using 22,500 tons of chemicals, many of which are known to be toxic if released into the air, which they are. The companies admit to using 44 different air toxics, some of which are carcinogenic but trade-secret chemicals are identified in a more vague fashion, e.g. a “lubricant,” “surfincant” or “mixture.”

Authors of the report argued that the trade-secret claims by drillers were invalid and cite the California Public Resources Code that state: “Notwithstanding any other law or regulation, none of the following shall be protected as a trade secret: [t]he identities of the chemical constituents of additives, including [chemical abstract service] identification numbers.”

The list of most commonly used air toxics was topped by crystalline silica, a mutagen known to be tough on respiratory and immune systems as well as the kidneys, sensory organs and skin. It is followed by methanol, hydrochloric acid, formaldehyde, amorphous silica, hydrofluoric acide and napthalene. None of those are fun Google reads.

Most of the well-stimulation events (314) involved acidization, which injects large amounts of hydrochloric or hydrofluoric acid into wells to dissolve rock formations and allow easier access to oil and gas. However, “this number is likely less than the actual number of acidizing events that have occurred,” the report says, because several forms indicate operators used an acid wash or “acid perforation” but did not check the “acidization” box.

Gravel-packing, used with chemicals, was involved in at least 149 events and fracking in 14.

More than half of the well-stimulation events (265) occurred within 1,500 feet of  schools, homes or a hospital. Freeport-McMoRan Oil and Gas Company operated one such site at Jefferson Park near USC, “85 feet from homes, 145 feet from a church and 770 feet from an elementary school.”

Fracking and other well-stimulation techniques have been used in California, and nationally, for decades. But the use had not been extensive until recent years, when new technology and more aggressive deployment re-animated older wells and opened up new fields.

California has undergone a boom in drilling and oil and gas companies, as well as politicians, were drooling at the prospect of using the new methods to crack open the Monterey Shale in Central California where an estimated 15.3 billion barrels of oil were trapped. But a new assessment by the federal government trashed that dream when it cut extraction projections 95%.

Despite its widespread use, fracking et al was not regulated in the state until last year. No one knows where the fracking is happening, what chemicals are being used and what precautions are being taken. Lawmakers passed Senate Bill 4 in September to begin a process of assessing the situation, putting together an environmental impact report and conjuring up regulations.

Critics say the bill pretty much gives the industry a free pass for at least two years while drilling techniques linked to groundwater contamination, air pollution, releases of methane gas, micro-earthquakes and sinkholes continues unabated. Legislation that would have imposed a moratorium on the extraction processes until they were proven safe was defeated in the Senate two weeks ago.

–Ken Broder        


To Learn More

Fracking Companies Used 45 Million Pounds of Toxic Chemicals in Los Angeles Last Year (by Katie Valentine, ThinkProgress)

Environmentalists Didn't Care Much for New State Fracking Law, and That Was Before They Found Non-Compliance (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Air Toxics One–Year Report: Oil Companies Used Millions of Pounds of Air–Polluting Chemicals in Los Angeles Basin Neighborhoods (Center for Biological Diversity and others) (pdf)

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