The groups that run the national fracking chemical registry FracFocus announced plans yesterday to make the site easier to use and less prone to errors.
The Ground Water Protection Council (GWPC) and Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission also announced a plan to reduce the amount of data kept hidden as trade secrets.
"Once they are implemented, the changes proposed to FracFocus will make a big difference in the quality, transparency and accessibility of information about the chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process," said Kate Konschnik, policy director of Harvard Law School’s Environmental Law Program. "I look forward to seeing these changes roll out later this year."
Konschnik has been a prominent critic of FracFocus, but she has been working with GWPC for about a year on the changes.
The changes come as the Obama administration prepares to issue new rules governing hydraulic fracturing on federal land. The rules are expected to include chemical disclosure requirements.
The administration has signaled support for using FracFocus. But environmentalists and open-government advocates have said it is inadequate in its current form for mandatory disclosure.
John Amos of the advocacy group SkyTruth has said that the obstacles FracFocus creates for researchers mean that using it would flout an executive order from President Obama on open data.
"If they’re implemented in a way that honestly addresses some of the serious functional problems we’ve identified with the existing FracFocus system, these proposed improvements would be a positive step toward meaningful public disclosure," Amos said.
But he said he is concerned that the administration will approve the use of FracFocus in its fracking rule based on promises rather than proof.
The improvements to FracFocus are to include a "self-checking" feature designed to detect and correct errors when companies are entering the unique numbers for chemicals, called CAS numbers.
The organizations said they will put an "emphasis" on a reporting format called the "systems approach" that they hope will reduce the number of chemical names withheld as trade secrets. Under a systems approach, chemical names are reported separately from the additive products they go into, protecting the companies’ proprietary recipes.
When Baker Hughes Inc. announced that it would no longer withhold chemical names as trade secrets, it said it would be using the systems approach (EnergyWire, April 24, 2014).
A Department of Energy panel that reviewed FracFocus for the Obama administration reported last year that at least one chemical ingredient was omitted for 84 percent of the wells listed on the site (EnergyWire, April 25, 2014).
The groups also promised to make the chemical data available in a "machine readable" format. FracFocus records are currently available only in PDF format.
"Improved capability to capture data through the extraction of ‘machine readable’ data sets will provide wider data access for the public," the groups said in a release yesterday.
They are also planning to make the site itself easier to use, with pull-down menus and new search fields such as the disclosure submission date. A 2013 EnergyWire review of state records showed that more than one-fifth of FracFocus reports were being turned in late (EnergyWire, June 7, 2013).
FracFocus was launched in 2011 as a way for companies to voluntarily disclose their fracking chemicals. Many states have since turned to it as a means for mandatory disclosure. The site has data from 20 states, and a version of the system is operating in five Canadian provinces.