A study by a new Harvard University policy initiative says the FracFocus.org website has "serious flaws" as a means of disclosure for hydraulic fracturing chemicals used in oil and gas production, and state governments shouldn't be relying on it.
The study says FracFocus has a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn't account for different state requirements, prevents many kinds of searching and gives drilling companies too much leeway to miss deadlines or withhold information as trade secrets.
"States have written tough disclosure requirements, backed by robust public information laws," said Kate Konschnik, policy director of the Harvard Environmental Law Program. "However, when those same states direct companies to report to FracFocus, they give up a lot of oversight authority. Meanwhile, the public's ability to seek additional information or challenge trade secret claims is lost when an agency is not in possession of the disclosures."
FracFocus was launched two years ago by the Ground Water Protection Council (GWPC), a private nonprofit organization in Oklahoma City governed by state drilling and water quality officials, for voluntary disclosure. But as states have expanded requirements for disclosure, the site has begun to evolve into a repository of public information.
Disclosure of hydraulic fracturing chemicals is now required in 18 states. Of those, 11 allow or direct drilling companies to report on FracFocus.
The site's creators said critics are misinterpreting its mission.
"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," GWPC Executive Director Mike Paque said last year (EnergyWire, May 21, 2012). "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."
Asked about the study today, a GWPC official said today the organization will review it and respond in writing "as soon as practicable."
The administrative costs of the website are paid by the American Petroleum Institute and America's Natural Gas Alliance, and industry officials say it is the best means of disclosure. Many of the aspects of FracFocus criticized by the Harvard study are supported by oil and gas industry groups.
'An impenetrable interface'
The report, titled "Legal Fractures in Chemical Disclosure Laws," echoes the complaints of open-government groups, environmentalists and the Obama administration's "fracking" study panel that FracFocus has serious flaws as means of government-made disclosure.
It comes as the Obama administration is expected to endorse FracFocus as a means of disclosure of the fracturing chemicals used on federal public lands (EnergyWire, Feb. 8).
The study says FracFocus "fails as a regulatory compliance tool" because government agencies that use it give up control to the website and the companies.
If states have deadlines for disclosure, FracFocus doesn't provide a way of verifying that the deadlines are met. If states require extra data, there's no place to put it on a FracFocus form, except in the "comments" section. And, the study says, the site lets operators decide when to conceal chemical ingredients as trade secrets. Because of that, the report says, trade secret claims are widely inconsistent.
Those inconsistencies can be difficult to detect because FracFocus requires users to open the disclosures one at a time as PDF documents, rather than letting users see data on multiple wells in a spreadsheet.
The report calls it "an impenetrable interface that prevents users from accessing more than one disclosure form at a time, thereby virtually eliminating any real search functionality."
The Harvard researchers used data from the environmental group SkyTruth that "scraped" the information from the site and put it in tabular form. They found that companies often claimed trade secret protection for chemicals at one well that they had already disclosed at another.
The FracFocus site explains that the information is not available in spreadsheet form because "FracFocus was originally designed to serve records one at a time in Adobe pdf format in order to ensure accurate, unaltered and uncompromised data. Consequently, the chemical information gathered does not currently reside in a database or spreadsheet format."
Two states, Colorado and Pennsylvania, set requirements for FracFocus to become more searchable by this year. But the study says that FracFocus missed the deadlines to comply, and the state agencies took no action in response.