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February 6, 2013

State: Firm must reduce fracking risk

Local advocates questionefficacy of agreement

By JOE MAHONEY
The Daily Star

---- — COOPERSTOWN — State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli on Tuesday heralded a new agreement with Cabot Oil and Gas that commits the company to revealing its policy for “eliminating or minimizing” the use of toxins in hydraulic fracturing fluids.

But two local advocates for greater transparency in the chemicals used to frack shale formations for natural gas said the agreement stops short of telling the public precisely what toxic substances those fluids contain.

DiNapoli, as sole trustee of the state’s $150 billion pension fund for public employees and retirees, said the agreement with Cabot prompted him to withdraw his shareholder proposal demanding disclosure of the policies governing fracking fluids.

Cabot, as part of its new policy, said it will “encourage development and use of more environmentally benign hydraulic fracturing fluid additives.”

It also said it was committing to “transparency” by disclosing the composition of frack fluid additives “to the extent permitted by suppliers, while respecting intellectual property rights, and proprietary and confidential business information.”

In a statement, DiNapoli said: “Cabot has taken a positive step to reduce risk to shareholders, the environment and the communities in which it operates. ... Shareholder value is better protected when companies disclose the risks associated with the hydraulic fracturing process.”

Lou Allstadt of Cooperstown, a retired Mobil Oil Corp. vice president who oversaw the company’s drilling operations in the Western Hemisphere, said he questioned the significance of the agreement, noting the public will still be in the dark on the makeup of Cabot’s fracking fluids.

“If Cabot comes through with what they said they would do, all we will know is what Cabot’s procedures are to try to use less toxic chemicals,” Allstadt said. “That doesn’t mean they will not be toxic. It doesn’t mean they will not be spilled. It just means they say they are trying to use less toxic chemicals.”

State University College of Oneonta chemistry professor Ronald Bishop offered a similar evaluation of the DiNapoli announcement.

Bishop said while it was “encouraging” that Cabot is prohibiting its contractors from using diesel or benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes in fracking fluids, “it’s not clear how the company interprets that prohibition.”

While the significance of the agreement is in question, Bishop said he applauded DiNapoli for attempting to protect New York’s environmental interests.

The state pension fund holds 681,692 shares in Cabot, for a total value of $35.8 million, according to DiNapoli’s office.

The comptroller said shareholders are better protected when companies disclose the risks associated with their industrial activities.

Cabot Oil and Gas, one of the companies behind a partnership promoting the proposed Constitution Pipeline, has become one of the most active drillers in the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation that underlies parts of upstate New York, and regions of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.

Some residents of Dimock, Pa., sued Cabot in 2009, claiming their well water was poisoned by methane gas and toxic chemicals as a result of drilling activities. Cabot denied responsibility for the pollution, although last year the company reportedly reached a settlement with the residents. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed.