BLM Fracking Rule Violates New Executive Order on Open Data

by Sofia Plagakis, 5/16/2013

Today, the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released its revised proposed rule for natural gas drilling (commonly referred to as fracking) on federal and tribal lands. The much-anticipated rule violates President Obama's recently issued executive order that requires new government information to be made available to the public in open, machine-readable formats.

Last week, President Obama signed an executive order requiring that all newly generated public data be pushed out in open, machine-readable formats. Concurrently, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released an Open Data Policy designed to make previously unavailable government data accessible to entrepreneurs, researchers, and the public.

The executive order and accompanying policy must have been in development for months, and agencies, including BLM, should have been fully aware of the new policy. But instead of establishing a modern example of government information collection and sharing, BLM's proposed rule would allow drilling companies to report the chemicals used in fracking to a third-party, industry-funded website, called FracFocus.org, which does not provide data in machine-readable formats. FracFocus.org only allows users to download PDF files of reports on fracked wells. Because PDF files are not machine-readable, the site makes it very difficult for the public to use and analyze data on wells and chemicals that the government requires companies to collect and make available.

Although FracFocus.org has recently improved some of its search features, the oil and gas industry opposes making chemical data easier to download or evaluate for fear that the public "might misinterpret it or use it for political purposes." (subscription required) Citizens need to have adequate, accurate information about the chemicals they may be exposed to in order to evaluate the potential risks and rewards of allowing fracking in their communities.

"It is particularly disappointing that the first new information proposal since the open data executive order completely ignores the new requirements," said Sean Moulton, Director of Open Government Policy at the Center for Effective Government. "This proposal doesn't just fail to comply with the new open data policy, it represents a step in the wrong direction since it abdicates control of and access to the data to an industry website."

Other than violating the executive order, there are additional problems with using FracFocus.org as the vehicle for public disclosure. Reporting the data to a third-party site means that BLM will not be able to ensure timely and accurate reporting. Additionally, it is unclear whether the data would be accessible through the Freedom of Information Act since BLM is not collecting the information. The site is managed by nonprofit intergovernmental organizations comprised of state agencies that promote oil and gas development, but it has also received funding from industry associations, such as the American Petroleum Institute, a trade association for oil and gas companies.

When government agencies determine that information needs to be made public, they should ensure that the data provided is complete, accurate, and machine-readable. Outsourcing such responsibilities does not absolve them of this responsibility.

Once the fracking rule is published in the Federal Register, the public will have 30 days to make their voices heard. We'll publish a more thorough assessment of the rule in the coming weeks and provide you with more information so you'll have a chance to weigh in and let the BLM know what you think.

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