HYDRAULIC FRACTURING:

FracFocus officials defend against Harvard criticism

The organization that created FracFocus.org yesterday rejected criticism in a Harvard University study that the site takes authority for hydraulic fracturing chemical disclosure out of the hands of state oil and gas agencies.

"We believe the research done by the Harvard team fails to reflect the true capabilities of the FracFocus system and misrepresents the system's relationship to state regulatory programs," the Ground Water Protection Council said in a statement emailed to reporters.

The Harvard study, released yesterday, said state oil and gas agencies shouldn't be using the site for disclosure because it "fails as a regulatory compliance tool" (EnergyWire, April 23).

But study author Kate Konschnik said her report didn't target the creators of the site, but rather looked at whether the public was getting good information from it.

"Our report does not blame FracFocus for anything," said Konschnik, policy director of the Harvard Environmental Law Program. "It merely points out, based on empirical evidence, that the public and state regulatory agencies do not appear to be getting accurate and complete reporting through this site."

The report was released as the Obama administration weighs whether to use FracFocus as the means of disclosure for fracturing chemicals used on federal public lands (EnergyWire, April 23).

GWPC, a private nonprofit organization in Oklahoma City governed by state drilling and water quality officials, launched FracFocus two years ago as a site for companies to voluntarily disclose fracturing chemicals. 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 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.

The study, titled "Legal Fractures in Chemical Disclosure Laws," criticizes FracFocus for an error-prone, 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.

It says states using FracFocus can't determine if drillers file late because agencies aren't notified when companies file.

But GWPC officials say they notify states when companies file and provide them with lists of the disclosures on a "routine basis." States can also download data from FracFocus into their own systems.

It is then up to state officials to determine if the disclosures were filed in time and whether companies are following the rules governing trade secrets, the GWPC statement said.

"It is up to each operating company to know and understand individual state laws regarding disclosure," the GWPC statement said. "It is also up to each state to enforce compliance with its own laws."

The site has also been updated to address some of the one-size-fits-all criticism, with fields for "base fluids" other than water and the date that fracturing started and ended. Different states require different information to be disclosed, but FracFocus has one form for all drilling companies.

The group's statement did not deal with criticism that GWPC makes data on the site "impenetrable" by serving up the data from more than 42,000 well sites as PDF documents that must be called up one by one. By not allowing access to the information in spreadsheet form, the study says, FracFocus eliminates "any real search functionality."

GWPC President Stan Belieu faulted the study's authors for not contacting state oil and gas agencies.

"The FracFocus website was developed and is managed by the state oil and gas regulatory programs, and I am not aware of any state regulatory program that has been contacted by Harvard University to make inquiry of its capabilities, I do not understand how, without direct contact, this study can draw the conclusions it has," said Belieu, who is deputy director of the Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

Two interviews with state oil and gas officials are referenced in the footnotes of the study. Konschnik said researchers talked with "a few" agencies but acknowledged that the study was more a legal review than a survey of agencies.

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