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Fracking Industry Disclosure Website is Flawed, Says Harvard Study

FracFocus doesn't satisfy the public’s right to information, states shouldn't use it as a regulatory tool, report concludes

Anti-fracking activists have long been saying that FracFocus — the voluntary chemical disclosure registry for oil and gas companies using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, technology  — is seriously flawed. The very idea of Big Oil and Gas voluntarily ‘fessing up to the whole list of potentially toxic cocktail of chemicals they pump into the earth to extract fossil fuels, has always been kind of — I’ll be polite — improbable.

photoname Photo by WCN 24/7/FlickrAt least 10 of the 18 US states that require drillers to report fracking chemicals use Fracfocus as their
official disclosure site.

And now we have a no less than a heavy-duty Harvard study weighing in on the matter and saying that the industry-backed registry is unreliable and “not an acceptable regulatory compliance method for chemical disclosures.” The study says the registry fails to satisfy the public’s right to information and that state governments shouldn’t be relying on it as a regulatory tool.

The study by Harvard Law School's Environmental Law Program, released on April 23, cites three key reasons why the database "fails as a regulatory compliance tool":

— It is hard to figure out when companies make disclosures (FracFocus does not notify a state when it receives a disclosure from a company operating in that state)

— The information disclosed isn’t reviewed and “that may encourage some companies to under-value careful reporting.”

— The companies get to decide what comprises a “trade secret.” Which means they can exempt themselves from disclosing critical information such as the exact proportions of the chemicals used in the drilling process.

"The Harvard study confirms what the public has been saying for some time now:  that FracFocus continues to reflect its origin as an industry-generated attempt to avoid full disclosure of fracking chemicals,” says Bruce Baizle, energy program director at Earthworks, an extractive industry watchdog group. “As any of us who have tried to use FracFocus know, the data is difficult to retrieve, it is not checked for accuracy or timeliness and industry claims of exemption are not evaluated at all.  In short, FracFocus lacks any accountability; it is not an appropriate tool for oil and gas fracking chemical disclosure."

FracFocus — which is managed by the Ground Water Protection Council, a nonprofit organization, and Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission — was created in 2011 to, as its website says, “provide the public access to reported chemicals used for hydraulic fracturing within their area.” It was not really meant to be a repository for state-mandated disclosure data. But in the past two years at least 10 of the 18 US states that require drillers to report fracking chemicals have begun using it as their official disclosure site.

Baizle says the registry is a convenient way for companies and states to receive the political benefit of fracking disclosure without actually requiring disclosure in a way that would benefit the public or impacted communities.

Fracking involves pumping a cocktail of chemicals, water, and sand under high pressure into shale formations to spilt or fracture the rock and extract the hydrocarbons trapped deep underground. Some of the injected fluids remain trapped underground. A number of these fluids, such as diesel fuel, qualify as hazardous materials and carcinogens, and can potentially contaminate groundwater resources, putting at risk of the environment and health of people living nearby.

The timing of the Harvard study is fortuitous since it appears the Obama administration might soon allow companies drilling on federal public lands to report their fracking chemicals on FracFocus.

Maureen Nandini Mitra, Editor, Earth Island Journal.Maureen Nandini Mitra photo
In addition to her work at the Journal, Maureen writes for several other magazines and online publications in the US and India. A journalism graduate from Columbia University, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Public Press, The New Internationalist, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, The Caravan and Down to Earth.

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