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New Harvard Study: "Serious Flaws" in Industry Self-Reporting Website FracFocus

Matthew McFeeley

Posted April 23, 2013 in Health and the Environment, U.S. Law and Policy

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A new Harvard study out today lists numerous problems with FracFocus.org, a website on which many states have required fracking companies to disclose the chemicals they use.  In short: the information is unreliable and incomplete, likely in large part because it counts on industry to self-report this information without significant oversight.

This is particularly troubling, given that the Obama Administration has also said it is considering relying on FracFocus to gather chemical disclosure information, as it drafts new rules that would govern fracking on public lands.[1] 

The study’s authors put it this way: “reliance on FracFocus . . . sends a strong signal to industry that careful reporting and compliance is not a top priority.”  I recently blogged about other problems with FracFocus.  This new study provides additional reasons that States and the Obama Administration should avoid FracFocus unless substantial improvements are made. 

Specific key findings of the study include:

  • FracFocus has extremely limited safeguards to ensure accuracy of information.  FracFocus does not review submissions and does not provide a process for states to do so.  Unsurprisingly, inaccuracies plague the data: a review of all the disclosures submitted over a month in Texas found that 29% of the chemicals used identification numbers that don’t actually exist.[2]   
  • The FracFocus form is generic, not tailored to state laws with specific requirements, making it difficult for companies to figure out how to comply.  Companies often leave out required information when there is no obvious place for it to be entered. 
  • FracFocus gives operators sole discretion to decide when they can withhold information they claim is a “trade secret.” The study identifies three important aspects of laws which ensure that only legitimately confidential information is kept secret - substantiation, verification, and opportunity for public challenge.  FracFocus offers none of these procedures. 

 


[1] The new rules by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) would regulate fracking operations where the federal government manages the rights to the oil and gas, including beneath about 700 million acres of federal and tribal lands and about 57 million acres of private lands. 

[2] Texas rules, and the rules of a number of other states, require fracking companies to report the Chemical Abstract Service number (CAS number) for each chemical.  CAS numbers are unique identification numbers assigned to each chemical by the American Chemical Society.  CAS numbers allow chemicals to be unambiguously identified and prevent misidentification, which can be caused by different naming conventions or names which refer to multiple chemical substances.  

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Comments

Michael BerndtsonApr 24 2013 08:59 AM

A concern I have about fracfocus is not so much its principal members like API (we know where they stand), but whether or not professional services contractors are working behind the scene in development and management of the website. My guess (again only a guess) is that a large multi-discipline consulting and engineering firm was contracted to prepare and manage fracfocus.org. These firms are also writing policy, preparing permits, investigating spills and overseeing cleanup on the environmental side. And on the other side, providing professional and technical services to Oil and Gas all up and down its operations. There is no way these firms are going to provide completely honest and accountable reporting from one division, if another division depends on rapid development, delivery and operations of oil and gas wells.

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