Harvard Study Finds ‘Huge Improvement’ in FracFocus Since 2013

A recent follow-up to a 2013 report that claimed FracFocus “fails as a regulatory tool” reluctantly acknowledges there has been a ‘‘huge improvement” in the past two years to the national database that discloses chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process.

Specifically, the report lauds upgrades that allow aggregated well data to be downloaded in bulk, as well as improvements that have limited data entry errors. From the report:

“From the first iteration of FracFocus to FF 2.0, our analysis suggests that the use of automatic field population and prompts (i.e., directing operators to enter API well numbers section by section) has reduced error rates. FF 3.0 will build on this work, for instance by providing drop-down menus for populating certain fields.”

But not surprisingly – and ironically, considering there is no mention in the report of lead author Kate Konschnik’s affiliation with a number of fracking opponents – the study focuses on claims of a rise in chemical disclosure rates, overshadowing the fact that FracFocus appears to have addressed the many criticisms of Harvard’s 2013 report.

Harvard’s new report includes analysis of 96,449 FracFocus forms and approximately 1.98 million ingredient records submitted from March 2011 to April 2015, finding rates of withheld chemical information have increased 5.6 percent since a 2013 EPA report found an 11.1 percent withholding rate.

But the researchers are making an apples-to-oranges comparison between the two reports. For one, the EPA report was based on a much smaller FracFocus 1.0 data set than was used for Harvard’s FF 2.0 report. And due to the fact FF 1.0 did not allow downloadable aggregate well data reports, the EPA study relied on “data scraping,” a less-than-desirable and less comprehensive method than used by Harvard. Therefore, the 11.1 percent figure at least has the potential of being inaccurate.

Also, Konschnik and report co-author Archana Dayalu took the liberty of labeling non-numeric Chemical Abstract Service (CAS) values from FF 2.0 chemical reports as “withheld,” therefore determining such instances as intentional chemical disclosure withholdings, based on their determination that keywords indicated proprietary concerns, or in instances that information was not available or not required to be reported. The fact that chemical information may have merely been entered incorrectly was apparently never taken into consideration.

This obviously could have skewed their 16.5 percent withholding figure between Feb. 2013 and April 2015. Fortunately, ambiguity regarding CAS numbers should not be an issue going forward, as the recently released FracFocus 3.0 gives an error message if an invalid CAS number is entered.

Regardless of those potential data miscalculations, it is important to note that all industries withhold proprietary information such as chemicals used in their products, a practice that even the researchers acknowledge “rewards and encourages innovation.”

In fact, even the recently re-introduced Frac Act – a proposal that seeks to bring place regulation of fracking in the hands of the EPA –acknowledges the rights of developers to protect their intellectual property. From the 2015 Frac Act:

“(D) NO PUBLIC DISCLOSURE REQUIRED.—Nothing in subparagraph (A), (B), or (C) authorizes a State or the Administrator to publicly disclose any proprietary chemical formula.”

Ironically, the Frac Act is backed by anti-fracking groups like Food & Water Watch and was co-sponsored by Konschnik’s former boss, Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a vocal fossil fuel opponent.

Fact is, even when proprietary chemicals are withheld by energy companies – or any company for that matter – they are made available to medical officials and emergency personnel. The federal Community Right-to-Know Act requires operators to submit and regularly update detailed Material Safety Data Sheets and provide them to first-responders and other emergency personnel in case of an on-site accident. State regulators are also made aware of chemicals used in fracking fluid and have access to all the information they need regarding their safe use.

Furthermore, the EPA report on FracFocus version 1.0 states that although 70 percent of disclosures had at least one CBI ingredient, information on the general chemical class is frequently provided, and a vast majority of those chemicals protected as intellectual property have been deemed non-hazardous by the EPA.

Recognizing the fact that companies have legitimate reasons to withhold proprietary data, the researchers advocate a “systems approach” for reporting chemicals, a method in which companies disclose chemicals but do not specify the specific fracking fluid product or formula that the chemical is used for. The researchers found when companies use the “systems approach” in reporting to FracFocus, withholding rates drop four-fold.

“Our results suggest that companies are willing to disclose additional information when they can separate chemical information from particular products. As this becomes a more widely accepted method of disclosing chemicals, we expect it will drive down rates of withheld chemical information.”

Which begs the question: If operators heed Konschnik’s advice and use the systems approach more often moving forward, resulting in chemical disclosure rates drop as she predicts, will she deem FracFocus a worthy regulatory tool? Don’t bet on it.

In addition to working for a senator who sponsored the Frac Act, Konschnik had a fellowship with the anti-fracking EarthJustice and also served on the Montgomery County Maryland Sierra Club executive committee, which provides important context while evaluating this report.

Fortunately, her well-documented views on FracFocus are not are not shared in the mainstream. Even the Obama administration has lauded FracFocus for providing transparency, as energy and climate adviser Heather Zichal said this about the online database: “As an administration, we believe that FracFocus is an important tool that provides transparency to the American people.”

And based largely on recently-delivered improvements to the registry, even the federal Bureau of Land Management has adopted FracFocus as its official source for chemical disclosure.

Bottom line: FracFocus is an effective regulatory tool. And thanks to recent improvements, disputing that fact is becoming much more difficult to do.

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