Fracking Chemicals & Transparency: Is FracFocus the Real Deal?

fracfocus web site

Yep, I saw Gasland… so, like many of us, I’m pretty concerned about the growing use of hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking) to extract natural gas, and the health and environmental effects potentially caused by this technology. So I was encouraged when I saw a headline at Environmental Leader stating “24 Companies Agree to Publish Fracking Chemicals.” Specifically, a new site, FracFocus.org went live on Monday that purports to provide general information on fracking, watersheds, and the chemicals used in the process, and to give access to specific chemicals used in individual wells owned and operated by the participating companies.

After reading the EL article, I was kind of encouraged. After visiting the site, that positive feeling was tempered a bit…

In fairness, this is a new site, and one that’s usefulness depends largely on the companies providing information about their fracking chemicals. After doing some searching for specific wells, I’d guess the input of the most specific information is still very much ongoing, as I had to hunt hard to find a well in the database. I certainly support any effort at transparency for fracking: given the stories I saw in Josh Fox’s documentary, I know people who believe their water supplies have been contaminated by the process had no luck at all getting answers about the compounds used in these wells, or what might have seeped into the groundwater (and perhaps turned their drinking water flammable).

FracFocus: Genuine Transparency on Fracking Chemcials, or just “Disclosure?”

Still, I’m concerned by what I see here. In a final scan of some areas of the site, I saw that one press release on the site itself actually put the word “disclosure” in quotation marks… I had to chuckle a bit, because that’s the feeling I got from digging into the various resources provided. Some points that struck me:

  • What are the potential health and environmental effects of the chemicals used? There is a long list of compounds used in fracking provided on the site; I can’t say that it’s comprehensive, but it is long. But the information provided only relates to the role each compound plays in the fracking process itself — there is no information provided or linked to directly about health and environmental impacts. Rather, three links are provided at the bottom of the list: the OSHA/EPA Occupational Chemical Database, the University of Akron’s Chemical Database, and EPA Chemical Fact Sheets. I tried finding more information on some of the compounds listed, and the second resource was the only one with which I had any luck finding any information.
  • How can fracking chemicals get into groundwater? There is a big section of the site on groundwater protection, but you won’t find the answer to this question here; rather, it’s addressed (very technically) in the FAQ. The groundwater section does contain a page on how to get your water tested (though it notes you need to have a pre-fracking sample for comparison… I’m guessing that would tough for many people).
  • How many wells are listed? As I noted above, my cursory scan found little. Furthermore, the database will only contain information on wells drilled after January 1st, 2011. According to a 2008 Propublica report, there were 449,000 gas wells in 32 states in 2007… and none of them that use hydraulic fracturing will appear in this database as it’s currently organized.
  • Could the ordinary person find and comprehend the information on this site? This is definitely not “fracking for dummies” — very technical language used throughout, with long text passages and few headers or other elements to make locating information easier for the non-technical user.

While I understand that a four-day-old site probably still needs some tweaking, I’m not encouraged by what I see here… and, so far, “disclosure” (in quotes) seems spot on. There’s no time frame for when participating companies will add information on their wells, nor is there (as far as I can tell) any third-party verification of the information provided.

The site is a project of two non-profit organizations, the Ground Water Protection Council (GWPC), and the the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC). Both represent elected officials and public policy professionals; right now, though, the site sure feels like something that the industry itself would’ve created.

I think voluntary initiatives can work to provide greater transparency and information for the public, but they’ve got to present that information in a manner that speaks to all stakeholders, that answers the most pressing questions about health, safety, and environmental impact, and that shares comprehensive resources. At this point, I don’t think FracFocus passes any of these criteria. I won’t go so far as to call it an effort at greenwash… but I’m pretty sure that others will.

If you haven’t looked at the site, do so… and let me know what you think. If natural gas is going to play a major role in our energy mix (and that certainly seems to be the case), than we need thorough, comprehensible resources that spell out all of the potential costs.

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