Access to Fracking Info — Still Bad — Improved by Non-Gov Web Initiatives

November 28, 2012

A geeky nonprofit watchdog group has done what government and private industry have failed to do; the group, SkyTruth, has made data about the ingredients in fracking fluid easily accessible to the public.

But lobbying by the gas and oil industry has limited how much the public can learn about toxic ingredients in fracking fluid, which can contaminate drinking water when wells fail or are sloppily completed.

The federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), under the "Halliburton exemption" passed with the 2005 Energy Bill, exempts fracking fluid ingredients from disclosure requirements. "Fracking" refers to an oil and gas production method that involves drilling horizontally into shale formations and injecting fluids at extremely high pressures to fracture them and release hydrocarbons. The fluids often contain toxics like benzene, a carcinogen, and the natural gas (methane) itself can be hazardous if it leaks into households.

Some states have required drillers to disclose some fracking fluid ingredients, but environmental groups complain that few require full disclosure.

"Two out of every three times oil and gas companies have publicly disclosed the chemicals in their hydraulic fracturing fluid, they've left something out," reports EnergyWire's Mike Soraghan. Soraghan used a commercial fracking database, PIVOT Upstream Group's D-Frac database, to track nondisclosure, typically based on claimed "trade secrets."

Industry groups have tried to head off calls for public disclosure of fracking ingredients by funding their own database of disclosed data — called FracFocus. But many users have criticized FracFocus as hard to use. SkyTruth's database takes the FracFocus data and makes it easier to search and use — and also allows users to download the whole dataset for their own projects.

Reporters trying to find out more about fracking impacts in their own areas may sometimes discover useful data in state-maintained databases based on the SDWA Underground Injection Control program. Even where fracking itself is exempt, waste disposal wells may offer clues.