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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  1. michelle Wilson

    HI Jeff,
    I am living in South Africa, and as you know we are facing the threat of Fracking in the Karoo provence, which is a very fragile dry, and stunning piece of this country. I am on the board of directors of WWF South Africa, and we have been buying Karoo land for many years to protect. With limited resources we are looking to make the most impact on the gov’t s decision making process here. Thanks for your review of FracFocus.

  2. Jeremy Boak

    Curious how many people assume that hydraulic fracturing must be responsible for any unusual chemical that appears in water. What I have seen so far shows:
    1) water being ignited – almost certainly natural gas, which could be a problem in any gas-producing area, as well as in areas with shallow coal, landfills, reclaimed swamp land.
    2) cases where water was contaminated, possibly by poor well completion practices, possibly by spills at the surface, again not limited to only wells that get hydraulic fracturing treatment. Where is the comparison to traditional drilling fluid to indicate that these are problems unique to fracturing?
    Why is there not more attention on the tendency to prefer new regulation to enforcement of existing regulation, which requires actual spending, an unpopular topic these days?
    I would also like to know how one determines fragility of an ecosystem, as I have yet to see anyone characterize an environment as anything but fragile. What are the measures of fragility that permit one to determine where it is OK to drill? Don’t we want consistent environmental protection for all ecosystems?

  3. Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

    Hi, Jeremy–

    These are all important issues you raise, and we don’t want to create fear where it’s not warranted. I think genuine disclosure would be a good move for the industry: spell out the facts as completely as possible, and own up to any problems with the process. You’re right that we need more enforcement/regulation based on laws already on the books, and such enforcement is being gutted in various budget proposals. We also need to be sure that landowners approached by drillers have the full story… not just the potential payout, but also a rundown on the potential health and environmental threats posed by the process.

    Timing seems to be the main evidence provided for pollution issues… wells appear to be fine until the fracking process commences. If we’re going to continue with this, taking water samples prior seems a smart first step… and perhaps this needs to be required of drilling companies and/or landowners leasing property for wells.

  4. karen hough

    Jeff and others,
    I speak from the water testing industry end of things. Yes, our company has heard it all…and our main mission remains the same-give people the knowledge and testing needed to assure them that what they are drinking is safe. PA’s Oil and Gas Act, section 208 requires gas drilling companies to baseline test all private water sources that are within 1000 ft. range of the well head…Those that are beyond that must pay and test for this on their own. What we are seeing is that those tested by the gas drill company often never see their water analytic results. The law does does require them to do this. SRM Labs (the company I work for) continues to educate everyone on the ‘chain of custody’ (COC) terms and we tell folks to demand (do this when they sign the COC doc @ sampling) their analytic results be sent to their household. WHY? Because the gas drill company has a good arguement later, should post drilling ‘foul’ the water…the gas drill company can say, “You had bad water to begin with. We even have the analytic results that show that.”
    How will you know this unless you test and get the results? I tell customers to remedy water problems and retest prior to any gas drilling. And because some of the aforementioned scenarios take time to remedy and re-test, it’s important for people to BASELINE sooner, rather then later. Now for folks outside this 1000ft range, they are BASELINE water testing in groups. This might serve them better legally, based on the “Power in Numbers” principle. Lastly, I want to encourage anyone with a private water source to test minimally ( once a year) or if there has been work done on the system, or one notices a change in the water quality. The minimal annual testing should be done for bacteria (total coliform and e coli) and TDS (Total Dissolved Solids)…if either test results in an MCL (Max. Contaminant Level) that is ‘off”, then take the proper steps to remedy or investigate source problem(s) further.
    Gas drilling companies love entering a state where residents have never taken the steps to glean a health history on their private water sources. Their argument will be, “Your water was bad before we ever started.” SELF ADVOCACY for your household members to SAFE WATER must begin today! Find a certified lab and get the process established!
    And if drilling is coming to your area and you are in SW Pa, call our lab (724.537.0300) and get the info. you need to make your water testing decisions. Good luck to all!

  5. Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

    Karen– Thanks so much for this really useful information. The idea that people didn’t have a baseline sample struck me as something that gas companies could use to their own advantage, so I’m grateful you’ve shared what you know.

  6. Elaine Engelhart

    I have some acreage in Michigans Antrim County, still own the mineral rights. My property is surrounded by gas lines & wells. I did have a base line well test and another five yrs later. Both tests neg. for VOC but have increase in chloride. cost of tests $200. One of the gas lines is about 160 ft. from my well head. I am looking for some info on how to detect ground water toxins at the earliest stage. I have been sounding the alarm about this issue at every opportunity and its not only my water supply Im worried about.

  7. JahKnows

    Some may find it interesting that the company who runs fracfocus.org is the same company who provides Chesapeake Energy with pro-drilling commercials. Do a WHOIS lookup for the domain, and you will see that it was registered and owned by Brothers & Company.

  8. william phillips

    Much has been said about fracing fluid but nothing has been said about the drilling fluid used in all wells. This stuff is bad enough and must be addressed also. What is done with the chemicals used in this fluid? What happens to all the solids that come up just from the hole? Would someone research this and write back. I would like to hear from you. William Phillips, [email protected] (I used to live in Cuba, NY and still have interests there.) Cuba is on the Pa. border so its close to being involved (in danger?) when the permits are approved.

  9. Bob

    Undeniably a good service if established in a true spirit of altruistism, but I have this feeling it is simply another attempt by industry to “greenwash” their profiles. At his moment the database is little more than a small flatfile containing little information of value. Very few operators are coughing up data. What is there are a lot of secret chemicals in the few wells listed and with names that mean nothing except perhaps to Shakespear’s witches. Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and caldron bubble. Fillet of a fenny snake, In the caldron boil and bake; I can’t shake the image that in reality it’s a case of the foxes watching the chicken coup again. How many times do they think we will buy their publicity stunts. The best news today is that there is so much gas on the market now, the price will go too low to support continued fracking. Operators, in their gas feeding frenzy, have poisoned, if not the water, their own market. At least until they can figure out how to reverse the LNG import plants and export to Europe.

  10. Brian

    In Pennsylvania – I am working on a Citizens Groundwater and Surfacewater database of certified data. There is a lot of solid data in the hands of citizens and individual well owners and compiling it will permit us to track change. Also – we came out with a new booklet on groundwater quality and baseline testing at it relates to PA.

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