New Website Makes Information on Fracking Chemicals More Accessible

11/27/2012

On Nov. 14, an environmental organization, SkyTruth, launched a website to give the public improved access to information on the chemicals used in a natural gas extraction process commonly referred to as fracking. The Fracking Chemical Database makes data from FracFocus.org (the industry-funded chemical disclosure site) easier to search and download for research and analysis.

Fracking is a process that pumps sand, water, and toxic chemicals into gas wells at very high pressure to cause fissures in shale rock that contains methane gas. Fracking fluid is known to contain benzene (which causes cancer), toluene, and other harmful chemicals, but the exact substances and amounts in fracking fluids are typically kept secret because companies invoke "confidential business information" exemptions to right-to-know laws and rules.

The Fracking Chemical Database

Founded in 2002, SkyTruth is a West Virginia-based group that uses remote-sensing and digital mapping technologies to investigate a wide range of environmental issues, such as mountaintop removal mining, the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and gas drilling. The organization extracted the fracking data from chemical disclosure reports submitted voluntarily by well operators to FracFocus.org.

"Unfortunately for researchers who want to analyze data to determine patterns and better understand fracking nationwide, FracFocus is difficult to use," said Paul Woods of SkyTruth. The organization hopes that the database "will facilitate credible research" and "promote discussion about effective public disclosure."

The database allows users to explore more than 27,000 industry chemical disclosure reports for gas and oil wells that were hydraulically fractured (or fracked) between January 2011 and August 2012 in 24 states. The reports cover 26,938 unique wells, but almost 700 wells were fracked more than once in that time period and have submitted multiple reports. Users can download the entire dataset or specific search results for deeper analysis or mashups with other data. The site also offers a large dataset, which includes more than 800,000 records, of all listed chemicals at each well. In addition to offering the data for review, SkyTruth has been collaborating with FracTracker.org to publish maps, analysis, and visualizations using the dataset.

However, because the dataset relies on information voluntarily provided by companies, the fraction of the fracking industry's activities being reported is unclear. SkyTruth has been researching the disclosure rate to estimate how much data is missing. In Pennsylvania, the group estimates that only 43 percent of chemicals used in fracking operations have been disclosed. In West Virginia, SkyTruth estimates that well operators provided information on 0-32 percent of the chemicals they use in fracking.

Nonetheless, despite the incomplete character of the information, the search and sort capabilities of the site, as well as the opportunity to download the database, represents a significant step forward in the public's ability to understand the fracking industry's activities. SkyTruth and FracTracker have used the data to calculate that the 27,000 wells in the dataset have used at least 65.9 billion gallons of water to frack for oil and gas – more water than goes over Niagara Falls in a day. The organizations also found that diesel fuel is still used in fracking fluid despite an explicit ban on its use under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Additionally, they found that two-thirds of all industry reports omit chemical information, claiming it to be trade secrets.

The Limits of the Industry-Funded Data Repository, FracFocus.org

Launched in April 2011 amid increased demand for public disclosure, FracFocus.org was created as a voluntary disclosure program for drilling companies to report the chemicals used in fracking fluid. The site is managed by the Ground Water Protection Council (GWPC) and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC), nonprofit intergovernmental organizations comprised of state agencies that promote oil and gas development. However, the site is paid for by the American Petroleum Institute and America's Natural Gas Alliance, industry associations that represent the interests of member companies.

Though originally designed as a voluntary program, several states (including Colorado, Louisiana, Montana, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Texas) have begun requiring drilling companies to report to the site as a means of online public disclosure. The move by states to require online disclosure is encouraging, but the choice of FracFocus as the vehicle is problematic. The site was developed in cooperation with industry associations, and its independence has been questioned. Because FracFocus is a third-party website, state agencies would have little to no authority to stop those recording the data from limiting functionality or use of the data.

Also, when electronic data is posted on a third-party site, it may not be available under state open records laws. The IOGCC has already declared that it is not subject to federal or state open records laws. "IOGCC is an interstate compact of its member states and is neither a state nor federal agency," Commission Director Car Michael Smith wrote in his July response to a data request from EnergyWire, a media company. "IOGCC is not subject to either the federal Freedom of Information Act or the Oklahoma Open Records Act," Smith said.

Government-mandated reporting information should be made available to the public on a government website, where access and capabilities are ensured and access to data cannot be limited by industry representatives.

The FracFocus website has several functional limits that also make it difficult for researchers to use for any significant analyses. For one, it does not include a comprehensive or specific list of all the chemicals used in fracking. The website also limits what users can search for in the database. But Colorado and Pennsylvania both require the FracFocus.org registry to be searchable by geographic area, ingredients, Chemical Abstracts Service Registry number, time period, and well operator by January 2013. If FracFocus does not contain this information and functionality by that time, state regulators have to develop their own searchable public websites. The IOGCC and the GWPC plan to improve the search function of the database to meet states' criteria by January 2013, but we believe this information should also be available on public websites.

Downloading data is another difficulty on the FracFocus website. Currently, users can only download reports of fracked wells as PDF files, which makes it very difficult for researchers to extract data (they have to scan or re-enter the data in the PDF files). Despite the plans to improve searching, there has been no indication if the site will provide data in a spreadsheet format for easy downloading and analysis.

Both the GWPC and the IOGCC contend (subscription required) that FracFocus was designed only for use by people who live near oil and gas wells – to allow them to find what chemicals were used to frack those wells – and "not for broader analysis." In general, the oil and gas industry does not support making chemical ingredient data available to the public in a downloadable format for fear that the public or anti-fracking activists "might misinterpret it or use it for political purposes."

Next Steps

SkyTruth plans to update its site with new data as it is added to FracFocus.org. By Dec. 1, the organization will have software in place that automatically updates the SkyTruth database any time new data is added to the FracFocus.org site. The group also plans to integrate the fracking data into its Alerts System. This service allows the public to receive an e-mail alert or use an RSS feed to be notified whenever a new chemical report is added in a state or geographic area. Currently, the alerts are only available by state, but by Dec. 1, SkyTruth will have the capacity to send its audience more geographically refined data. This is a valuable and time-saving service, and we applaud the availability of new data in user-friendly and useful formats.