It’s a classic case of the government’s left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. Days after the Bureau of Land Management issued new federal rules for fracking on federal land, relying heavily on an industry-run site called FracFocus, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a study mainly noteworthy for the shortcomings of the site that it revealed.
More than 70 percent of the chemical disclosure statements that drillers posted on FracFocus between January 2011 and February 2013 were missing key information because drillers labeled that data “confidential business information,” the EPA reported.
On average, drillers reported using a mix of 14 different chemicals at each well site. At sites where information was withheld, an average of five chemicals were not named.
In fact, FracFocus allowed drillers to conceal the identity of more than one out of every ten chemicals whose use was “disclosed” on the site, EPA researchers found.
This made it impossible for EPA‘s researchers, who received over 39,000 disclosure statements from FracFocus in March 2013 and published their study two years later, to definitively say what chemicals drillers used most often, how much of each chemical was injected underground, or even to simply create a list of all the chemicals used at the wells.
“The project database is an incomplete picture of all hydraulic fracturing due to … the omission of information on CBI [confidential business information] ingredients from disclosures, and invalid or erroneous information created during the development of the database or found in the original disclosures,” EPA noted in a fact sheet about the research.
All told, the EPA was able to identify 692 different chemicals — including hydrochloric acid, methanol and diesel fuel — that were used during fracking. But that number is almost certainly incomplete, EPA researchers said, in part because over 129,000 individual ingredient records were labeled secret.
The gaps immediately drew the ire of environmental groups.
“The fracking industry is hiding a lot of information about the chemicals they are using in our communities,” Kate Kiely, a spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Bloomberg. “Even without that information, it is clear that there is widespread use of dangerous chemicals.”
Just seven days before EPA‘s results were released, the Bureau of Land Management announced new rules intended to manage fracking on over 247 million acres of public land managed by the federal government and the 700 million acres for which the government owned mineral rights as of 2013.
The BLM‘s newly-minted chemical disclosure rules are built around FracFocus, allowing drillers to make required reports through the industry-backed website.
Data, data, everywhere…
EPA researchers ran up against a major stumbling block in crunching numbers based on FracFocus’ data, an issue that some warn may continue to cause problems even as the Bureau of Land Management adopts FracFocus as the mechanism for tracking fracking chemicals used on federal public lands.
FracFocus stored the information drillers provided in separate .pdf files for each disclosure, and every .pdf form can be different if drillers decide to edit the formatting. This meant that EPA researchers needed to spend enormous amounts of time simply transferring each bit of information into a spreadsheet, and then going back and making sure that each bit of information was in the proper place.
Some open-government advocates say that the BLM‘s reliance on FracFocus runs contrary to an executive order issued by President Obama that pledged to make data from the government “easy to find, accessible, and usable” by requiring it to be “machine-readable” — essentially in a format that lets researchers access it.
“Besides the fact that this decision flouts the President’s own Executive Order #13642 on Open Data, why are we so concerned about how the government manages fracking data?” David Manthos, Communications Director of the environmental organization SkyTruth wrote in a blog posting about the BLM rules. “The reason is because this decision will deprive property and homeowners, scientists, decision-makers, emergency responders, healthcare professionals, and the general public of effective access to information that is vital to investigating the environmental, social, and public health impacts of modern oil and gas drilling.”
FracFocus has promised to upgrade its site, having already done so once since it provided EPA researchers with the raw materials for their study. But SkyTruth’s Manthos remains skeptical.
“I’m concerned that BLM is basing their decision on vague promises, and will have no leverage or authority to control the timetable, implementation, or functionality of these improvements,” he said.
For a while, Mr. Manthos’ organization tackled the tedious task of scraping data from the FracFocus site and importing it into spreadsheets so researchers could use it. But in 2013, their work came to an abrupt halt when FracFocus froze SkyTruth’s access to the site.
“There was a little error message that was coming out saying, ‘Hey, you’re sending too many requests. You’re being blocked for 24 hours,’” SkyTruth’s Paul Woods explained to StateImpact last year. “Then, they block you for 48 hours and then they block you forever.”
SkyTruth is not the only organization to find fault with FracFocus. In 2013, a study published by Harvard University’s Environmental Law Program gave the site a failing grade, noting that it “has limited quality assurance procedures” because “FracFocus staff does not review submissions” uploaded by drillers.
The BLM‘s new rules also allow drillers, not regulators, to decide when a chemical should be considered secret as they upload their disclosures to FracFocus.
“These trade secret provisions are much weaker than many states and ignore the advice of a Department of Energy advisory panel which unanimously recommended that ‘any trade secret exemptions permitted by BLM in its regulations for hydraulic fracturing on federal lands include a rigorous process of claiming trade secret exemptions and robust trade secret verification and challenge mechanisms,’” the NRDC‘s Amy Mall wrote in response to the new rules.
The relative laxity of the BLM‘s new rules has done little to deter protest from the oil and gas industry, who see the rules as chipping away at state-level oversight of the shale drilling rush.
“Under the strong environmental stewardship of state regulators, hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling have opened up a new era of energy security, job growth, and economic strength,” API Director Erik Milito said in a statement. “A duplicative layer of new federal regulation is unnecessary, and we urge the BLM to work carefully with the states to minimize costs and delays created by the new rule to ensure that public lands can still be a source of job creation and economic growth.”
Already, battles over the BLM‘s new rules are headed into the courthouse.
Two industry groups, the Independent Petroleum Association for America and the Western Energy Alliance, have filed lawsuits claiming that the BLM‘s rules overreach federal authority, as has the state of Wyoming. Environmental organizations have suggested that the rules could also be vulnerable to a challenge under the National Environmental Policy Act.
“The bottom line is,” the NRDC‘s Amy Mall told The Dallas Morning News, “these rules fail to protect the nation’s public lands — home to our last wild places, and sources of drinking water for millions of people.”
Photo credit:”Bulk fluid shipping containers on pallets ready for shipment,” via Shutterstock.