North Carolina legislators are considering a bill that would make it a crime to publicly disclose toxic chemicals that energy companies use in the hydraulic fracturing process, with offenders on the hook for fines or even jail time.
Known as the Energy Modernization Act, the bill would make any unauthorized disclosure of fracking trade secrets – including the chemicals used – punishable with a Class I Felony, according to an Energywire report.
Fracking, a gas and oil mining technique which involves injecting a mixture of sand and chemicals deep into the earth, has been blamed for contaminated drinking water, infertility, birth defects, cancer, air pollution, and other serious concerns. Americans opposed to fracking have not only struggled with obstacles put in place by gas and oil companies, but also with the high profits and employment that come to struggling communities along with the process.
Environmentalists have called for more transparency in the conversation over the chemicals used, although gas companies have fought back by saying that their chemicals are a trade secret and thus should be protected. Now, under the parameters of the North Carolina bill, even firefighters and individual healthcare workers could be in trouble if they openly discuss the chemicals that are injected into the ground near their home.
“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 laws, told Mother Jones.
If the bill, which has the backing of the state’s top Republicans, is signed into law, major corporations could be given the power to force emergency officials to sign confidentiality agreements, although the penalty for breaking that agreement is unclear.
“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,” Wiseman went on. “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.”
Fracking is currently prohibited in North Carolina until the state legislature is able to agree on which regulations to impose on gas companies. Early proposals have already earned praise for creating some of the strictest regulations in the US, although critics have worried that the draft is being used as a distraction until state Republicans are able to devise a strategy that is more beneficial to corporations. The introduction of the Energy Modernization Act is already being portrayed as a step in that direction.
“Environmental groups say they favor some of the provisions [in the bill],” Energywire reported. “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.”
Public health advocates warned that such perks could turn the Energy Modernization Act into a Trojan Horse that makes testing chemicals impossible. The US Environmental Protection Agency has waded into the debate as well, announcing earlier this month that it is considering forcing major companies to disclose which chemicals are used in the fracking process.
Deborah Goldberg, a lawyer at Earthjustice, which is dedicated to protecting natural resources, told Salon that the EPA’s involvement, and thus the possibility of more transparency, is essential.
“We want to be sure that there is some agency that actually is collecting the information about what is being used in these shale plays across the country,” she said. “The disclosure we are getting right now is pretty spotty.”