EARTHWORKS

Colorado fracking database questioned by Harvard study

Denver Post | Mark Jaffe

April 23, 2013
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The online database that Colorado employs for disclosing the ingredients in fracking fluids used in drilling oil and gas wells is seriously flawed, according to a Harvard Law School study.

The analysis, done by the school's environmental policy initiative, found reporting errors and gaps in the independent database FracFocus. Colorado and 10 other states, including Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Oklahoma, require operators to post chemical disclosures on FracFocus.

The online database was developed by the Ground Water Protection Council, an association of state water agencies, and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission.

"FracFocus was a serious voluntary reporting effort," said Kate Konschnik, policy director of the Harvard Environmental Law Program. "As a regulatory mechanism, the states haven't thought out its use."

In reviewing Texas filings, the researchers found that almost a third of the chemicals listed didn't exist.

In Colorado, there is a requirement that by February 2013, the database would be "searchable" for regulators and the public.

Nevertheless, FracFocus permits the viewing of only one well report at a time.

"It is like putting blinders on so you only get a snapshot," Konschnik said.

Colorado adopted a rule in 2012 requiring the disclosure of fracking fluid components — a mixture of water, sand and trace chemicals, some potentially toxic — that are pumped into wells under pressure to crack rock and release oil and gas.

Colorado oil and gas regulators said Tuesday that improvements being made to the database will meet state requirements by June.

"We believe quality control and data integrity will be much improved," said Todd Hartman, a spokesman for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

The study also questioned whether Colorado and other states can effectively track filings.

The Harvard study said the database made it hard for states to track whether reports were being filed on time and that using one form even though states had different requirements created the risk of some data not being reported.

"We always felt that having a third party do it created accountability issues," said Bruce Baizel, director of the Oil and Gas Accountability Project.

"If someone doesn't file or files bad information, where is the enforcement?" Baizel said.

Reporting times are being monitored in Colorado, and regulators are "communicating" with operators who are lagging, Hartman said. No fines for late reporting have been levied.

Most states permit some ingredients to be withheld because of trade secrets, but FracFocus does not check those, the Harvard study said.

In Colorado, a company must file a "claim of entitlement" if it wants to claim a trade secret.

The number of claims could not be obtained from the commission Tuesday.

"There are still significant gaps in reporting in Colorado," Baizel said.

The Harvard study misunderstands FracFocus' role, Stan Belieu, president of the Ground Water Protection Council, said in a statement.

"FracFocus is not a regulatory program; it is a tool for collecting the disclosures required by regulatory programs," Belieu said. "The research done by the Harvard team fails to reflect the true capabilities of the FracFocus system."

Tagged with: fracking, fracfocus, disclosure, chemicals

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