HYDRAULIC FRACTURING

Public disclosure database kept private

The government agency that helps maintain the Fracfocus.org registry of hydraulic fracturing chemicals has refused to release the full database, keeping the government-mandated disclosure in private hands.

The Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC), based in Oklahoma City, is not subject to federal or state open records laws, commission Director Carl Michael Smith wrote in reply to a request from EnergyWire.

"IOGCC is an interstate compact of its member states and is neither a state nor federal agency," Smith wrote in his response. "IOGCC is not subject to either the federal Freedom of Information Act or the Oklahoma Open Records Act."

The FracFocus registry is managed by the IOGCC and the Groundwater Protection Council (GWPC), a private nonprofit governed by a board of state water regulators. GWPC had already rejected a request from EnergyWire for the FracFocus database (EnergyWire, May 21).

Open-government and environmental groups have been disturbed to see FracFocus 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.

Despite that, White House and Interior Department officials are considering incorporating FracFocus into the federal government's plan to require disclosure of fracturing chemicals used on public lands, even though the administration's advisory panel on fracturing faulted the site for not making data easily accessible (Greenwire, Aug. 11, 2011).

Earlier this summer, President Obama's top aide on energy and climate change issues, Heather Zichal, told an industry luncheon that the administration views the use of FracFocus as a way to avoid duplication (E&ENews PM, June 21).

FracFocus was originally designed as a voluntary disclosure site for drillers amid growing calls for increased public disclosure of fracturing chemicals. It was intended as a way for people who live near wells to look up what was being used when those wells got "fracked."

But since then, many states have made such disclosure mandatory. Many have allowed or required disclosure through the FracFocus registry, which has the effect of putting government-mandated disclosure data in the hands of a private group, GWPC.

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The site's design prevents the use of that data for broader analysis. Its terms of use forbid the kind of broad use of the chemical information needed to cross-reference it against other data. And presenting it well by well in PDF format, rather than a spreadsheet or database format, blocks in-depth analysis.

GWPC Executive Director Mike Paque said earlier this year that FracFocus was never designed to be a "national environmental analytic tool."

The IOGCC was formed in 1935 as a congressionally sanctioned organization of states to boost and stabilize oil prices amid supply gluts. The official members of the commission are the governors of the 30 member states. But governors generally appoint alternates, usually the state's top oil and gas official or an oil company executive.

The organization's website describes it as a "multistate government agency." But in addition to refusing to release the FracFocus database, IOGCC also declined EnergyWire's request for basic financial data, which most governments must disclose.

Smith did not respond to request for comment.

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 more than 17,000 wells.

To make a chart of all the chemicals used, a researcher would have to open each one and copy the list.

States can and do present other information, such as oil and gas production data, in spreadsheet form.

Oil and gas industry groups such as the Independent Petroleum Association of America oppose making the chemical data available in such spreadsheet format for fear that drilling opponents might misinterpret it.

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