Reflecting Risk: Chemical Disclosure and Hydraulic Fracturing
63 Pages Posted: 12 Mar 2013 Last revised: 4 Dec 2014
Date Written: October 13, 2013
In the last three years, twenty-two states have responded to public concern about high-volume hydraulic fracturing by requiring disclosure of the chemicals injected into oil and gas wells. Central to these policies is a nationwide website known as "FracFocus," which now contains data on almost 56,000 wells. No environmental issue in recent memory has spurred such a fast and uniform policy response by the states, a response that is more remarkable given the contested nature of hydraulic fracturing.
Drawing on the fields of risk science and decision science, the Article examines the virtues and perils of chemical disclosure as a policy response to uncertainty about the long-term health and environmental effects of high-volume hydraulic fracturing. The analysis suggests that the very aspects of the policy problem that make disclosure so appealing -- the relatively recent nature of the chemical use, the public controversy, and the high economic value of the activity -- also undermine the effectiveness of the approach. While the state policies produce more information about chemicals than the previous federal and state framework, they fail to meaningfully improve public understanding of risk.
The lessons of risk science and decision science lead to a surprising conclusion: to truly improve public understanding of risk, chemical disclosure policies should be designed to inform experts. At the same time, states must develop communications that provide individuals with the information they need to make important decisions. The Article ends by proposing a new approach that would meet the needs of both audiences.
Keywords: hydraulic fracturing, disclosure, chemical use
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