A few months ago, it didn't seem likely that the oil and gas industry and environmentalists would ever agree about the need to regulate what's being pumped into the ground during the hydraulic fracturing process.
But thanks primarily to the efforts of Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a compromise was reached that both sides support.
During our recent assessments of the major Republican candidates for governor, we stressed Freudenthal's leadership since 2003 for good reason: He gets things done and can pull parties with opposing views toward a middle ground. The "fracking" issue is a prime example of the type of leadership that will need to be replaced since Freudenthal opted to not seek a third term.
The governor's insistence on a balanced approach between disclosure and protecting companies' proprietary information was based on a sound goal: persuading federal officials that the state should maintain regulatory control over fracking, not the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Hydraulic fracturing involves pumping pressurized water, sand and chemicals underground to open up fissures and improve the flow of oil or gas. In recent years, the process -- along with horizontal drilling techniques -- has been credited with opening up about a century's worth of new domestic reserves.
In Wyoming, companies were not required to tell regulators the ingredients of their fracking chemical formulas. While there have been no documented cases of contamination due to fracking, many environmentalists and public health advocates have expressed concern about health hazards to groundwater. In March, the EPA launched a new research effort to investigate the issue. Some have called on Congress to put fracking under the EPA's regulatory authority.
Most oil and gas industry officials in Wyoming initially opposed state regulations, citing the need to protect trade secrets so they can remain competitive. But they apparently concluded that they'd rather disclose the fracking formulas to the state than the federal government, especially if they could get a few concessions built in to the process. It was a good choice.
Under the new rules approved Tuesday by the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, companies will be required to list what goes into their fracking chemicals and in what proportion. The rules would also require state regulators to not share certain information with the public if a company can prove it is proprietary. State regulators, however, will have the information so they can carry out the agency's charter to protect groundwater and drinking water supplies.
Both sides expressed support for the new rules. Environmentalists and health officials described it as a victory for public safety over corporate secrecy. Shell Oil Co., the U.S. arm of Royal Dutch Shell PLC, correctly noted that if there is a health issue, the public needs to be confident that the state has the necessary information to investigate.
"We started out with something that was pretty complex and we ended up with a regulation we're pretty sure we can live with," added Rick Robitaille of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming.
Thanks to the new rules under Freudenthal's leadership, those concerned that fracking might contaminate drinking water sources now have a state agency to go to that at least will have a better idea of what is being pumped into the ground. That should benefit both the public and industry by boosting public confidence in the safety of the practice.