It turns out that one of the great consumer victories from the Texas Legislature last session was a bill so industry-friendly that ALEC and ExxonMobil adopted it as model legislation.
The New York Times reported on Sunday that ALEC (that’s the American Legislative Exchange Council)— the one-stop shop for corporations in need of legislative favors—really dug Texas’ supposedly landmark fracking disclosure law.
Last December, ALEC adopted model legislation, based on a Texas law, addressing the public disclosure of chemicals in drilling fluids used to extract natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The ALEC legislation, which has since provided the basis for similar bills submitted in five states, has been promoted as a victory for consumers’ right to know about potential drinking water contaminants.
This is interesting insight into how ALEC functions: The group’s “task forces” don’t necessarily come up with corporate-friendly laws all on their lonesome. No need for cold pizza, loose-tie spitballing jam sessions around the conference table when a vast talent pool of state legislators and their lobbyists can be found in the several states. And the Texas Legislature, that Laboratory of Bad Ideas, proved rich territory in this instance.
A close reading of the bill, however, reveals loopholes that would allow energy companies to withhold the names of certain fluid contents, for reasons including that they have been deemed trade secrets. Most telling, perhaps, the bill was sponsored within ALEC by ExxonMobil, one of the largest practitioners of fracking — something not explained when ALEC lawmakers introduced their bills back home.
The loopholes, as some critics warned, have undermined the effectiveness of the law. In March, I reviewed 25 of the disclosures forms, totaling almost 1,300 ingredients, and found that trade secrecy is claimed for about 15 percent of the chemical components reported to FracFocus.org.
But last year, state Rep. Jim Keffer (R-Eastland), the author of the legislation, lauded the fracking disclosure bill as a “landmark piece of legislation” that would “establish a clear model for other states to follow.”
The loopholes were hardly a secret around the Capitol. Keffer defended them as necessary to win industry approval. In May 2011, he told me that only a “balanced” approach could’ve secured the support of both environmentalists and frackers. Word around the Lege was that the bigger, PR-sensitive fracking companies wanted *something* to head off the EPA and growing public outrage.
“The operators want it,” Keffer told me. “They understand the public frustration in this. They understand the liability.”
But some drilling activists dismissed the Texas disclosure law as insultingly weak. Sharon Wilson, a Barnett Shale activist, wrote at the time that the bill was so “watered down that no one but industry will mistake it for setting any kind of national precedent.”
Ironically, the Texas law did set a precedent: Exxon-approved legislation that ALEC could shop around to other state legislatures.
It calls to mind the University of Texas motto: What Starts Here Changes the World. Or in this case, doesn’t change anything other than deepen our sense that government belongs to the highest bidder.