Open-government and environmental groups are disturbed to see the hydraulic fracturing registry FracFocus.org becoming a substitute for traditional regulatory disclosure, saying the site limits its usefulness in a way that provides less transparency and accountability than standard government disclosure.
The organization that runs the site, the Ground Water Protection Council, says it was never designed to be a "national environmental analytic tool."
But state governments have been adopting it. The Obama administration is considering adopting it for disclosure on public lands even though the administration's advisory panel on hydraulic fracturing faulted the site for not making the data more easily accessible.
"It should be reported on a well-by-well basis and posted on a publicly available website that includes tools for searching and aggregating data by chemical, well, by company, and by geography," the panel stated in its August report.
FracFocus does not have such tools for aggregating, and it's not planning to add them.
"I realize there are folks who want to be able to do all sort of comparative analysis, but that is not what this site was originally intended to do," Mike Paque, executive director of the Ground Water Protection Council, wrote in an email exchange with EnergyWire. "We did not set out to build a national environmental analytic tool or website, which some seem to think FracFocus should be. I guess no good deed goes unpunished."
New laws in Colorado, Texas and Pennsylvania allow drillers to satisfy their disclosure requirements by posting to FracFocus. At the urging of Exxon Mobil Corp., the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council adopted the Texas law as model legislation. Now it's moving through the Illinois Legislature (EnergyWire, May 2).
In Washington, the Obama administration says it's working with GWPC to see whether the disclosure it plans to require for drilling on public land can be integrated into FracFocus (Greenwire, May 4). Oil and gas companies are lobbying the White House to allow that (EnergyWire, May 7).
Critics say FracFocus shouldn't serve as a substitute for true "public" disclosure.
"FracFocus.org is not a website that is useful to the public, as information made available through a state government or multistate website would be," said Joshua Ruschhaupt, director of the Sierra Club's Rocky Mountain Chapter. "We do have a problem with state governments requiring disclosed data and critical information to be provided only through a site with massive restrictions on its use."
'Searchable,' not 'aggregatable'
Earlier this month, EnergyWire asked GWPC for the full database of ingredients. The organization declined to provide it.
"We cannot release the database as a whole," said Mike Nickolaus, GWPC's special projects director. "It is a policy decision that was made early on in the development process."
Some, however, have already started finding their way around the obstacles put up by the site. Julian Todd, a programmer who co-founded a British company called ScraperWiki, has "scraped" some of the data from the PDFs and put it in a format downloadable to a spreadsheet (to see it, click here). Because of the difficulty of extracting the data, he has been able to get chemical information for only about 2,000 of the 17,000 wells listed.
On FracFocus, wells can be searched by operator, state and county. But because the site is not aggregatable, the results cannot be organized into a chart. Instead, there is an individual PDF for each of the roughly 17,000 wells.
So, for example, one could search for all the Chesapeake Energy Corp. wells in Bradford County, Pa. That returns more than 140 PDFs spread across eight screens. To make a chart of all the chemicals used, a researcher would have to open each one and copy the list.
To use FracFocus, companies submit their information to the site after a fracture treatment, or "frack job," using a spreadsheet template. If the data were presented that way, it could be easily aggregated and cross-referenced with other information, like water pollution data.
Instead, the spreadsheet is destroyed after the information is converted to a PDF, under the agreement that GWPC and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC) reached with drilling companies when the registry was created.
"Except for a single copy made for personal use only, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, republish, upload, post, transmit, or distribute any documents or information from this site in any form or by any means without prior written permission," the terms state. Unauthorized use, it states, "could result in criminal or civil penalties."
It's not clear how aggressively this might be enforced, however. The ban appears to be part of an off-the-shelf, boilerplate set of rules, which also prohibit seemingly irrelevant uses of the information, such as gambling.
States can and do present other information, such as oil and gas production data, in spreadsheet form.
But the oil and gas industry opposes making the fracking data available in such spreadsheet format for fear that drilling opponents might misinterpret it. Lee Fuller, head of the industry group Energy in Depth, notes that opponents would likely use such data to take certain toxic chemicals and add up how much was used in a state or across the country.
"The reason that industry is concerned about it is that these numbers are not really meaningful, but they're used to create anxiety in communities," Fuller said. "It would be used for political purposes."
Paque said concerns about misinterpretation did not drive design of the site.
"That is not a concern of ours," Paque said. "Any data can be misinterpreted at any time, and the opportunity to do so with FracFocus already exists."
To environmental groups, the obstacles to broad use of the data indicate the site is designed to serve the industry's interest rather than the public's.
"It's known that industry had a strong role in the group that set up FracFocus," said Michael Chiropolos, chief counsel of Boulder, Colo.-based Western Resource Advocates, "and there's a suspicion that it was set up more to protect industry than to establish transparency."
FracFocus was created by GWPC and the IOGCC with praise from industry and federal funding from the Department of Energy. The two groups, Oklahoma City-based organizations of state officials with ties to industry, now run it.
GWPC is a private nonprofit whose governing board is composed of state water regulators, but it has accepted industry funding, including $47,500 from the American Petroleum Institute in 2009. The IOGCC describes itself as a "multistate government agency," though it has oil and gas executives on its governing board and its meetings have industry sponsors such as BP PLC, Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell PLC.
Critics say public data shouldn't be entrusted to a private entity like GWPC.
"If this information needs to be disclosed, it needs to be usable by everybody, not locked away in PDFs," said Tom Lee of the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for greater government openness and transparency.
The Sierra Club's Ruschhaupt added that "obtaining permission" to use public information contradicts the definition of "public information."
GWPC and IOGCC launched the site in April 2011 as a way for oil and gas drilling companies to voluntarily disclose the chemicals they inject underground during drilling as part of the fracturing process.
As the shale boom began, drillers fought Democratic legislation calling for disclosure and federal regulation of fracturing. Industry argued that full disclosure to the public meant giving away trade secrets. When the calls continued into the realm of shareholder resolutions, industry argued that there already was disclosure because Material Safety Data Sheets were posted at well sites, and state regulators could demand more detailed lists.
Then, a few companies and states started putting lists of commonly used chemicals on their sites (Greenwire, June 21, 2010). When critics called that too vague, officials started working on FracFocus.
It has become industry's preferred means of satisfying government-mandated disclosure, by both states and the federal government.
GWPC's Paque said the site is being updated because of demands from states using it for mandatory disclosure. Paque calls it "FracFocus 2.0," and it will allow searches by date, chemical name and chemical identification number. The site can already be searched by company, state and county. It will not become aggregatable.
"We are trying to do something right with FracFocus," he said, "and put information out for landowners and the general public that did not exist two years ago."