One of the hot new frontiers in trade secrets law involves an industry, not a legal question. There is no question the fracking industry is controversial. On the one hand, state legislatures view hydraulic fracturing as a potential boon to local economies. On the other, the very nature of this process causes much hand-wringing and cause for concern among environmental advocacy groups.
Hydraulic fracturing occurs when operators inject pressurized fluids into rock layers to release petroleum or natural gas. Fracking companies often believe the chemical compounds used in the fluid injection process are trade secrets. This causes a natural tension when public interest groups seek to discover what kind of chemicals are being inserted into local aquifers.
The case law applying trade secrets concepts to fracking is new and largely undeveloped. In the most significant decision to date, the Supreme Court of Wyoming addressed what trade secret definition should apply to a request for disclosure of an operator's chemical compounds. In Powder River Basin Resource Council v. Wyoming Oil and Gas Conser. Comm'n, the Court held that the most stringent trade secrets definition should apply. (The opinion is contained below.)
It considered three alternatives:
(1) The Uniform Trade Secrets Act definition, with its now ubiquitous two-part formulation;
(2) The Restatement (Third) of Unfair Competition definition, found in Section 39, which generally is viewed as less rigorous than the UTSA standard; and
(3) The federal Freedom of Information Act definition.
The Court ultimately chose the FOIA definition. It defines trade secret as "[a] secret, commercially valuable plan, formula, process, or device that is used for the making, preparing, compounding, or processing of trade commodities and that can be said to be the end product of either innovation or substantial effort."
The italicized clause limits trade secrets to the productive process and would exclude a wide range of commercially valuable information that often times is at issue in competitive disputes. The Court's justification makes some sense. The broader UTSA and Restatement definitions are geared towards providing a remedy for unfair competition in private disputes. And a more definition would render meaningless the protection FOIA affords "commercially valuable" information.
The FOIA definition, which should lead to more disclosure, is meant to balance ownership of a true trade secret with the public's right to access documents affecting matters of public interest. In those states with fracking laws and regulations, operators normally have the chance to show administrative agencies that their chemical compounds or formulas are trade secrets. The decision in Powder River Basin will provide appropriate guidance to other courts that are called upon to evaluate a challenge to any administrative decision that favors fracking operators.
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