Fracking and Public Disclosure – 43% Doesn’t Cut It

43 friggin’ percent? Say it with me:  FAIL.

One of the big issues related to the current national boom in natural gas and oil drilling is that the oil and gas industry doesn’t have to publicly disclose the list of chemicals they’re pumping into the ground to do hydraulic fracturing (fracking).  The industry was specifically exempted from those requirements in the national energy legislation that Congress passed in 2005.  Some critics call this the “Halliburton Loophole.”  I call it an unjustifiable giveaway.  Why?  Because homeowners and municipal officials who want to test their drinking water so they can establish legally admissible, pre-drilling “baseline” conditions, and monitor the quality of their drinking water once drilling begins in their area, don’t know what chemicals to look for.  There are hundreds of possibilities, so this loophole makes it practically impossible for people to protect themselves. 

Attempts to close the Halliburton Loophole at the national level have been stalled in Congress for years. Some states have taken up the issue and passed various disclosure requirements, but most allow companies to label some of the chemicals as “proprietary information” and keep their identity a secret. 

In 2011 industry teamed up with the Ground Water Protection Council to create a national public registry of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing at specific well sites.  Called FracFocus, it has a search interface that lets users find a well by location, and pull up a sheet of information on that well called a Hydraulic Fracturing Fluid Product Component Information Disclosure.  Sounds pretty impressive, doesn’t it?  An Obama administration official just gave FracFocus the thumbs up, saying

As an administration, we believe that FracFocus is an important tool that provides transparency to the American people — Heather Zichal, deputy assistant to the president for energy and climate change, during questions after a luncheon speech to the Natural Gas Roundtable in Washington, D.C.

But….once again, the devil is in the details.  It turns out FracFocus ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.  Participation in the site by industry is entirely voluntary.  Publication of the information typically happens long after the fracking operation is completed, essentially eliminating the possibility that homeowners can test their water in advance to legally establish a pre-fracking baseline to protect themselves. And industry is still allowed to keep the identities of some chemicals secret, which is pretty much the opposite of “transparent.”

Last week, our Frack Family blog post and video show that for one recent Pennsylvania fracking operation reported on FracFocus, over half of the chemicals used (by weight) are unidentified.  This week we decided to investigate further to see if we could come up with an overall disclosure rate on FracFocus, multiplying the reporting rate (the percentage of fracking operations that have reports in FracFocus) by the chemical disclosure rate (the percentage of chemicals identified in those reports).  By the way, FracFocus is intentionally designed to make this kind of analysis and performance-measurement tedious and very difficult – even industry recognizes these limitations.   So we threw the problem to some trusty interns. Yolandita and David collected spud reports from the state of Pennsylvania identifying all the new Marcellus Shale horizontal gas wells drilled in the first six months of 2011, and combed FracFocus for all the reports corresponding to those newly drilled and presumably fracked wells.  Here’s what Yolandita found:

There were 734 spuds (drilling starts) between January and June of 2011 that were both Marcellus and Horizontal, reported to the Pennsylvania DEP as of May 2012. Of the 734 reports, 396 or 54% of them reported a Hydraulic Fracturing Fluid Product Component Information Disclosure to FracFocus.

Of the 396 reports, we took a random sample of 50 reports. Of that 50, we could only determine a chemical disclosure rate for 45 of the reports. We calculated the amount of disclosed chemicals vs. undisclosed chemicals by weight, not including water and sand, to determine a disclosure rate. The disclosure rate of the sample averaged 81%.

If 54% of the spuds have a report on, and, on average, 81% of chemicals are disclosed, then approximately 43% of chemicals in all the fracks in PA are actually being disclosed.

Mr. President, I think an overall average chemical disclosure rate of 43% doesn’t provide transparency to the American people.  Any homeowner who relies on well water sure would like to know what’s in the other 57%.  Will it take national legislation to make that happen?  Or are we resigned to a balkanized mess of differing state-by-state rules and regulations?

Or — will industry make legislation unnecessary by stepping up to the plate and doing the right thing?  After all, if drilling and fracking are not causing water contamination (and as Exxon’s CEO suggests, we’re all just a bunch of illiterate, lazy fools being manipulated by fear-mongering enviros) then industry has nothing at all to fear from giving homeowners the information they need, when they need it, to effectively monitor their drinking water.

Right?  So what’s the holdup?  Because 43% just doesn’t cut it.