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FracFocus upgrades availability of data on oil & gas operations

Information on fracking at gas wells like this one in southwest Pennsylvania will be more easily available through a new FracFocus project. (AP Photo/David Smith)

Information on fracking at gas wells like this one in southwest Pennsylvania will be more easily available through a new FracFocus project. (AP Photo/David Smith)

A national project that collects and disseminates data about hydraulically fracked U.S. oil and gas wells raised its game on Friday by making the information available in aggregate form for anyone to download.

FracFocus, which draws data from most states, including Pennsylvania, that host unconventional oil and gas development, has been gathering information such as the use of water, chemicals and sand, and the depth and location of individual wells, since 2011.

The data have been available to the public but only in the form of pdfs containing data for each well.

The project, which is funded by industry trade groups, has been criticized by researchers as being too cumbersome to be an effective disclosure of the substances used by oil and gas operators. Some of those drillers have been accused of hiding their practices from public view amid persistent claims of air and water contamination.

Now, anyone can download all the raw data into a spreadsheet to be analyzed by users such as academic researchers, nonprofits, or federal agencies who are trying to detect, for example, the prevalence of specific chemicals across the industry or in a certain geographic area.

The project isn’t providing any new information, and doesn’t offer users any analytical tools, but is making data from 94,360 oil and gas wells available in a form that is much easier to obtain than it was previously.

“We think it’s a really good first step, to get the data out in a data format so people can start looking at the whole picture themselves,” said Dan Yates, associate director for the Groundwater Protection Council, a nonprofit group of state regulators who run FracFocus, along with the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, an interstate agency. “Previously it would have taken you a month or more to do that. Now it takes you 10 minutes.”

Yates said the new functionality addresses accusations that the industry has been reluctant to disclose its practices but only to the extent that it makes the information easier to obtain.

“The answer is yes but only because it releases the data as data,” he told StateImpact. “There are more queries that individuals can do that they weren’t able to do easily. There’s no new information. It’s just a better format, and easier.”

Yates said the industry, whose data is supplied to state regulators in the first place, has cooperated with the project, and has been consulted at various stages.

“They’ve been supportive of the idea of providing this data as data, and we’ve used them as a sounding board to make sure that we were, from a data perspective, doing everything correctly,” he said.

While the public will have easier access to the fracking information, it won’t make any difference to the state agencies that contribute the data base because they have been able to obtain it in aggregate since November 2102, Yates said.

Neither the American Petroleum Institute nor the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection responded to requests for comment.

Critics of FracFocus have included Skytruth, a West Virginia-based nonprofit that uses publicly available data and satellite images to monitor the impacts of industry on the environment.

The group previously complained because it was handicapped by the pdfs, and because its automated downloads of FracFocus data were blocked by the interstate organization.

But on Friday, Skytruth welcomed the new availability of aggregate data as a step toward full disclosure of industry activities.

“Publishing machine-readable data is a good first step that we’ve long awaited,” Skytruth President John Amos told StateImpact. “This will allow researchers, industry regulators and the public to evaluate the quality, timeliness and completeness of the information that drillers are submitting about the chemicals they use in hydraulic fracturing operations.”

A worker monitors pressurized testing at a  fracking site in Susquehanna County.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

A worker monitors pressurized testing at a fracking site in Susquehanna County.

Next, Amos said, FracFocus should address other problems including poor data quality and curation that impair public disclosure. He also called on the state officials to end what he called the “unjustified use” of trade secret exemption that allows the industry to “hide” the identities of chemicals from the public.

FracFocus has also been attacked by Harvard Law School’s Environmental Policy Institute, which in 2013 accused the industry of failing to disclose chemicals at some drilling sites on the grounds of trade secrets.

But on Friday, the Institute’s director, Kate Konschnik, called the changes a “huge step forward” in giving the public usable information on oil and gas activities.

Konschnik, who advised a U.S. Department of Energy advisory board project on the reform of FracFocus, said states must still oversee industry disclosure of its activities but argued that the public’s improved access to that information will help regulators do their job.

The new standard of data availability was also welcomed on Friday by the Environmental Defense Fund, which said the move brings FracFocus into the era of big data “where large information sets can be analyzed for actionable patterns and trends.”

The EDF welcomed increasing disclosure of oil and gas practices, and said that some 95 percent of fracking operations now report chemicals to the data base, even if they are in the few states that don’t require it.

The environmental group accused some companies of continuing to hide specific chemicals behind trade-secret provisions, and said some states may not be enforcing disclosure requirements, but that there is “no question” that states are requiring greater transparency than they did a few years ago.

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