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North Carolina could make disclosing fracking chemicals a felony

Halliburton and other interests "helped write a fracking chemical disclosure bill" in North Carolina, according to Greenpeace.
Pump jacks and wells are seen in an oil field where gas and oil extraction uses hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Pump jacks and wells are seen in an oil field where gas and oil extraction uses hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

To America's major energy companies, the chemical cocktails used in hydraulic fracking are like the recipe for classic Coca-Cola: A trade secret, to be protected at all costs. And North Carolina legislators agree, which is why they've proposed a bill which would make it a felony to disclose the chemicals used in the state's fracking operations.

That bill, called the Energy Modernization Act [PDF], would make it a Class I felony to reveal confidential information about the chemicals used in North Carolina fracking projects. The bill also requires that energy companies disclose that information to the State Geologist, as well as first responders in the event of a chemical leak. But the legislative process is far from over and environmental activists claim that industry lobbyists are working overtime to shape the rule to their advantage.

The environmental organization Greenpeace claims that emails to and from members of the state's Mining and Energy Commission (MEC) demonstrate a "cozy relationship [with] the hydraulic fracking industry." Greenpeace researcher Jesse Coleman wrote a lengthy analysis in which he argues that Halliburton and other energy companies exerted influence on the commission to loosen up disclosure rules. In particular, Halliburton is alleged to have killed a proposed MEC rule "because it required disclosure of all chemicals to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources."

The MEC drafts rules and regulations regarding North Carolina's energy industry which then go to the state legislature for review. The version of the rule now being considered by the legislature requires the state geologist, a member of the department, to hold onto trade secrets from the fracking industry. However, that was not in the rule submitted by the MEC, and Coleman says he thinks he knows why.

"That was rejected explicitly by Halliburton," he told msnbc. MEC chair Jim Womack has previously confirmed to the Associated Press that he spoke with a "senior Halliburton executive" over the phone shortly before delaying a commission vote on disclosure rules. Coleman argues that's when Halliburton killed the proposed law.

Speaking to msnbc, Womack called that allegation "absolutely false." He says he had already decided to delay a vote on the rule so that it could be rewritten, and he called Halliburton to persuade them "that we could do better and move forward with a fuller disclosure" if the commission took more time drafting the proposal.

"It was convoluted," said Womack of an earlier version of the rule. "The rule was too complicated, it was tedious, and it didn't seem to serve the environmental interests of the state of North Carolina."

When asked earlier versions of the MEC proposal mandated that the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) take possession of trade secrets related to fracking, Womack said he couldn't recall. But Vikram Rao, another member of the commission and a former Halliburton employee, said DENR itself told the commission it didn't want responsibility for holding on to trade secrets.

"What the secretary said was he just didn't want to take possession of it," said Rao. With the possession of trade secrets would come a legal liability for them.

Womack corroborated Rao's claim.

"This is one of those litigious issues," he said. "In every state where it was done, they had the pants sued off them." By avoiding possession of trade secrets DENR hoped to avoid getting wrapped up in lawsuits regarding the alleged public health hazards of fracking. But members of the state legislature, by mandating that the state geologist hold onto those trade secrets, seems eager to get the department involved anyway.

Coleman, the Greenpeace researcher, said he would not be surprised if DENR had voiced objections to taking possession of state secrets. The department "has a long history of being close to the industry and making sure the industries get what they'd like in North Carolina," he said.

In other environmental news today, a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists says that climate change could be putting some of America's national landmarks at risk of devastation.