Pennsylvania oil and gas officials are breaking with fellow state regulators and planning to drop the FracFocus website for reporting the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing.
Next year, the state Department of Environmental Protection will shift to using data reported directly to the state by oil and gas companies and integrating it with other data compiled by the agency.
"FracFocus is a great tool, there is no question about that," said DEP spokesman Neil Shader. "However, they didn’t have all of the data that we want to make publicly available, and it wasn’t in a format that would lend itself to thorough data searches."
The main switch for companies is that they will no longer be able to submit completion reports on paper. They will have to submit them electronically. Fracking is part of the process of "completing" a well, and the reports provide information about that process. Shader said the agency is hoping to phase out the paper reports by March 2016.
The state is working on launching a new, publicly accessible database as soon as June 2016.
FracFocus was launched in 2011 by the Ground Water Protection Council, a private nonprofit governed by a board of state water regulators, and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission.
It was quickly endorsed by oil and gas trade groups and is the industry’s favored means of disclosure. The American Petroleum Institute and America’s Natural Gas Alliance pay the operating expenses of the site.
But environmental groups and open-government advocates complained the site was error-prone, created needless obstacles for researchers and allowed companies too much latitude to exempt information as trade secrets. They also said a private group shouldn’t be the custodian of government-mandated disclosure data.
In February, GWPC announced changes to improve the accuracy of the site, limit trade secret exemptions and make the data available in "machine-readable" format (EnergyWire, Feb. 27).
Despite the complaints, most state agencies have either required or allowed companies to use FracFocus as disclosure of fracking chemicals became the norm. After the improvements were announced, the Obama administration also decided to use FracFocus for disclosure of fracking ingredients on public land.
A prominent exception is California, where legislators ordered the state oil and gas agency to create its own system for public disclosure.
"There was some distrust of something developed with industry involvement," said Steve Bohlen, California’s state oil and gas supervisor.
Pennsylvania oil and gas officials are now in a similar situation to their colleagues in California, who are under a Jan. 1, 2016, deadline to develop their own system. Like Pennsylvania, California’s chemical data will be integrated with information on water use and other aspects. Bohlen said he’s confident it will be done on time.
"It’s an IT challenge that’s not huge," he said, but he added, "It’s not easy either."
Wait and see
Industry and environmental advocates are taking a wait-and-see approach.
"We like FracFocus, and we also appreciate what the commonwealth is doing," said Pennsylvania Environmental Council President and CEO Davitt Woodwell.
Woodwell said he hopes there will still be a way to compare data from Pennsylvania with other states and regions. And his group continues to want disclosure of chemicals used in processes other than fracking, such as the actual drilling of the well. That is not part of DEP’s current plan.
Pennsylvania shale drillers also had a neutral reaction to the changes.
"Our organization, which was a very early advocate of FracFocus participation, is committed to common-sense disclosure practices," said Erica Clayton Wright, spokeswoman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition.
The group has been less neutral about other proposals by the administration of new Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf affecting drilling. The coalition opposes Wolf’s plan for a severance tax and has called some new drilling regulations "duplicative and unnecessarily costly" (EnergyWire, March 10).