N.C. senators introduce bill to restrict information about fracking chemicals

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(NaturalNews) Knowledge is power but unfortunately, too many politicians, scientists and other renowned individuals too often see it as a hindrance rather than a benefit.

As the oil production technique known as hydraulic fracturing increases around the country, concerns about what impact "fracking," as it is known, will have on long-term public health are increasing as well. Such concerns have led 20 states to require that oil companies disclose the industrial chemicals used in the process, Mother Jones magazine reported.

North Carolina is not one of them, the report says, and may actually be moving to prevent disclosure.

In recent days three Republican state senators introduced a bill that would impose a felony charge on anyone who disclosed confidential information regarding fracking chemicals. The bill "establishes procedures for fire chiefs and health care providers to obtain chemical information during emergencies," says the magazine, but as noted in the trade publication Energywire, anyone found leaking the information outside of those parameters could be hit with fines and months of prison time.

"The felony provision is far stricter than most states' provisions in terms of the penalty for violating trade secrets," Hannah Wiseman, a Florida State University assistant law professor who studies fracking regulations, told Mother Jones.

In addition, the report said, the legislation, called the "Energy Modernization Act," also permits companies that own the chemical information to require emergency responders to sign a confidentiality agreement. It isn't at all clear what the penalties would be if a healthcare worker or fire official spoke about their experiences with fracking-chemical accidents to colleagues, even as part of ongoing training.

Companies want to keep information proprietary, but regulators wouldn't know what to monitor

"I think the only penalties to fire chiefs and doctors, if they talked about it at their annual conference, would be the penalties contained in the confidentiality agreement," says Wiseman. "But [the bill] is so poorly worded, I cannot confirm that if an emergency responder or fire chief discloses that confidential information, they too would not be subject to a felony."

In some sections, she added, "That appears to be the case."

Disclosure of what chemicals are utilized, along with sand and high-pressure water, to break up shale formations and release oil and natural gas, is one of the most contentious regarding fracking. A number of energy companies have said that information should remain proprietary, to help protect copyrights, while public health officials and advocates have said they can't monitor the operations for health impacts without knowing what they are looking for.

Under pressure from the public, a few companies have begun to publicly disclose their chemicals.

North Carolina has implemented a ban on fracking until the state can approve regulations governing the practice. However, a measure passed the state Senate May 20 that would lift the fracking moratorium.

In her interview with Mother Jones, Wiseman added that other than the act's felony provision, the bill proposes similar laws to those adopted already by other states.

"It allows for trade secrets to remain trade secrets, it provides only limited exceptions for reasons of emergency and health problems, and provides penalties for failure to honor the trade secret," she said.

Draft regulations from a North Carolina commission have been lauded as some of the strongest in the country. But critics worry final regulations, when they issued, will be much weaker. In early May the commission delayed the approval of a near-final chemical disclosure rule after Haliburton, which has massive stakes in the fracking industry, said the proposal was too strict, according to the News & Observer newspaper.

Local governments would be hamstrung as well

More from Mother Jones:

"For portions of the Republican-controlled North Carolina government to kowtow to the energy industry is not surprising. In February, the Associated Press reported that under Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, North Carolina's top environmental regulators previously thwarted three separate Clean Water Act lawsuits aimed at forcing Duke Energy, the largest electricity utility in the country, to clean up its toxic coal ash pits in the state. Had those lawsuits been allowed to progress, they may have prevented the February rupture of a coal ash storage pond, which poured some 80,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River."

"Environmental groups say they favor some of the provisions [in the Energy Modernization Act]," Energywire reported Friday. "It would put the state geologist in charge of maintaining the chemical information and would allow the state's emergency management office to use it for planning. It also would allow the state to turn over the information immediately to medical providers and fire chiefs."

But, critics say, the bill would also not allow local governments from passing any rules on fracking and limit water testing that precedes a new drilling operation.

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