MOAB — Utah has joined a growing list of states that require energy companies to disclose which chemicals they employ in a controversial process used to stimulate oil and natural gas production.
The state Oil, Gas and Mining Board, by a unanimous vote, approved a new rule Wednesday that requires companies to use www.fracfocus.org to report the amount and type of chemicals used to hydraulically fracture any Utah oil and gas well.
FracFocus is managed by the Ground Water Protection Council and Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy. Colorado, Louisiana, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Texas all use the website as a means of meeting a state disclosure requirement.
"Hydraulic fracturing is definitely becoming more of a concern," said Laurel Hagen, executive director of the Canyonlands Watershed Council.
"A lot of that is because we're noticing oil and gas leases are getting closer and closer to populated areas," Hagen said. "It seems like oil companies are going after more and more marginal resources, which means they have to use more intrusive practices like fracking."
Hydraulic fracturing — known commonly as "fracking" — involves introducing explosive charges deep underground to perforate a completed well casing. A mixture of sand, water and chemicals is then pumped down the steel casing under high pressure to fracture the shale rock around it. The sand holds the new cracks open to allow previously inaccessible reserves of oil and natural gas to flow to the wellhead.
The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are currently studying hydraulic fracturing, with an eye toward possible federal regulation of the practice. Any such regulation would be "redundant," said John Baza, director of the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining.
"Utah geology is unique. It can't compare with Texas, Oklahoma or the states back East," Baza said. "We think that fracking rules, as they're implemented and developed, should be unique to state programs."
Hydraulic fracturing has been blamed by landowners and environmental groups for groundwater contamination. The practice has even been highlighted in an Oscar-nominated documentary that included footage of a man lighting his tap water on fire.
"A lot of people are saying it's hydraulic fracturing, but fracturing is just part of a well's life cycle," Baza said. "(The problems) probably have more to do with well integrity, design of the well, cementing and casing.
"Frankly, those rules are already in place in Utah to address those things," the director said.
Utah has seen a rise in drilling permit applications this year. As of Wednesday, the state had already received 141 more permit applications in 2012 than it did the prior year, and 471 more permits than the year before that.
The increased workload has environmentalists worried that state regulators won't be able to keep pace, even with the new disclosure rule.
"Even if we have the greatest regulations in place, do we actually have the manpower and enforcement capacity to make sure they're being followed?" Hagen asked.
Baza acknowledged that his agency hasn't added any new positions for nearly a decade. That's something he expects will change.
"I suspect sometime in the next year or two we'll be approaching the Legislature about that very thing, about expanding our capacity to deal with the activity that's going on in Utah," he said.
But the director also said there hasn't been a single confirmed case of water contamination in Utah that can be traced to hydraulic fracturing.
"We've actually investigated cases and complaints where people have alleged groundwater contamination," Baza said. "We often find it's other things than the oil and gas industry."
The mandatory chemical reporting rule takes effect Nov. 1. Companies will have 60 days after they complete a hydraulic fracturing job to make the information available for online publication.