Preparing for a state legislative hearing on drilling and water use, Bruce Baizel asked a co-worker to pull up all the hydraulic fracturing reports for New Mexico on FracFocus.
But as she mouse-clicked her way through the chemical registry, she got a message that she'd been locked out of the site.
"Activity from this account has been flagged as possible automated (non-human) activity," the message read. "This computer has now been blocked from performing additional searches for a time period of 8-24 hours."
It took a few email exchanges, but she was let back into FracFocus. Baizel, director of Earthworks' Oil & Gas Accountability Project, finished his presentation.
But such incidents are demonstrating the limitations of FracFocus as the Obama administration and the Bureau of Land Management weigh whether it should be the means of disclosing chemicals used to frack on public lands.
"FracFocus needs to be upgraded, or they need to do something different," Baizel said. "This doesn't work."
FracFocus officials say the block system is needed to foil automated searches of the site. They say the site's limitations won't be a problem if it is included in what's called the "BLM Frack Rule."
"It shouldn't be a problem," said Mike Nickolaus of the Groundwater Protection Council (GWPC), which administers the site. "We will work with BLM to make sure the system meets their needs."
But in comments submitted on the frack rule, environmental groups made it clear they don't think FracFocus is up to the task, in part because of its data limitations.
"We believe that FracFocus does not provide sufficient disclosure, and we recommend that BLM use its own website to provide disclosure," Lois Epstein and Barrett Ristroph of the Wilderness Society wrote in formal comments to BLM.
Environmental groups also fault FracFocus for not enabling pre-frack disclosure and for loose controls on how companies claim trade secret exemptions.
An industry group, the Independent Petroleum Association of America, stressed its support for FracFocus even as it said the rule was duplicative and unnecessary.
"FracFocus strikes the proper balance between substantial disclosure of additives used in hydraulic fracturing operations and protection of trade secrets service suppliers develop to improve the quality and safety of those operations," wrote IPAA's Dan Naatz and Kathleen Sgamma.
FracFocus was launched in 2011 by GWPC, a private nonprofit group in Oklahoma City governed by a board of state water and oil and gas regulators, along with the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission. Two industry trade groups, the American Petroleum Institute and America's Natural Gas Alliance, pay the operational costs.
The site has been heralded by the oil and gas industry as the answer to questions about the transparency of the drilling process. Disclosure of hydraulic fracturing chemicals is now required in at least 18 states. At least 11 allow or direct drilling companies to report on FracFocus.
But critics, mostly environmentalists and open-government groups, say the site's clunky design blocks most uses of the data beyond looking up the chemical ingredients injected into one well.
Trying to determine how much water was used in a state or a county, for example, requires thousands of mouse-clicks and hours of work, or sophisticated computer skills to automate the search.
And in the midst of that, even researchers working by hand might still get blocked.
"The problem is that some folks are working so fast the system thinks they are automated bots trying to access the data," Nickolaus said.
GWPC has added a system that blocks "bots," the programs that do automatic searches. That's needed, Nickolaus said, "so that the general public does not experience delays in processing."
He said when people notify GWPC that they've been locked out, he explains the issue and unlocks the site for them.
"The best advice we can give people is to slow down a little and let each search complete before beginning a new search and let each PDF open before trying to load another one," Nickolaus said.
The FracFocus data is stored as a database but is not presented to the public in a searchable format. When a user clicks, the data is converted into a PDF file and served up one well at a time.
GWPC officials have not said that the FracFocus system is unable to deliver the reports in spreadsheet format. States get information from GWPC in Excel spreadsheet files each month.
Instead, GWPC and state officials say it fulfills its original intended purpose: allowing a person living next to a well site to look up the chemicals that went into that well.
"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."
Fears and 'functionality'
Industry groups such as IPAA oppose making the fracking data available in such spreadsheet format for fear that drilling opponents might misinterpret and use it for political purposes. One fear is that opponents would use such data to add up how much of some toxic chemicals were used in a year.
A report from the Harvard Environmental Law Policy Program said that system makes the data "impenetrable" and said it eliminates "any real search functionality." The Harvard program also submitted comments to BLM, saying the searchability of FracFocus should be enhanced so it operates like U.S. EPA's Toxics Release Inventory.
GWPC responded to other aspects of the Harvard report, saying it "misrepresents" FracFocus' relationship to state agencies, but it didn't address criticism of how the data is presented.
SkyTruth, an environmental research group, used computer programs to "scrape" data from the site and present it in a database format. But it has since given up on trying to present the data to the public because it can't verify its accuracy or completeness.
"You have an independent nonprofit serving as curator of a nationally significant database," said SkyTruth President John Amos. "If you're going to mandate the disclosure of this information, that changes the game."
But Baizel's co-worker, Oil & Gas Accountability Project research chief Lisa Sumi, was doing the work by hand. He said he wound up needing about 300 reports. There are counties in some states with more wells than that listed on FracFocus.
"I thought this was how we were supposed to do it," Baizel said. "If they want to be the go-to site, they need to figure out how to be accommodating."
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