Thursday, July 2, 2015

Moving Beyond FracFocus: Bringing Real Transparency to Fracking

Since its launch in 2011, FracFocus, a government- and industry-funded website, has been the only place where Americans could learn the details about chemicals and water used in fracking operations near their homes, schools and businesses. But FracFocus has never lived up to its promise of bringing true transparency to fracking. And now, at least one state is planning to set its own course for fracking disclosure.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection has announced that it is withdrawing from FracFocus. Starting in March 2016, Pennsylvania’s fracking operators will have to report electronically to a state database that will present citizens with a map-based interface with simple one-click summaries of specific wells, in addition to downloadable bulk data.

Pennsylvania officials say this is to counter FracFocus’s lack of user-friendliness, which has long been a source of consternation to researchers attempting to document the impacts and risks of fracking. For many years, FracFocus’s website was populated with individual PDF files, scanned copies of forms filed by fracking companies. Initially, many of those disclosures were voluntary; as the site’s influence grew, states began requiring frackers to file with FracFocus. But the database was always far from complete.

FracFocus could be useful for citizens curious about an individual well, but the database was notoriously unfriendly to those wanting to probe more deeply into fracking. For a long time, searches could not return more than 2,000 records. From those search results, users could not download more than a small number of actual disclosure forms each day. What they were able to download was not machine-readable or searchable in any way.

Those limitations persisted as FracFocus improved its underlying data structure, in 2013 requiring disclosures to be submitted in a machine-readable format to an electronic database.

It was 2015 before the public was allowed to download machine-readable data. This latest improvement in FracFocus transparency is welcome, but still falls short of modern standards for making data available and accessible to the public. In Frontier Group’s work on government spending transparency, we have argued that, to be useful to the public, transparency data must (among other things) be searchable, bulk-downloadable, and “one-stop,” meaning that citizens shouldn’t have to jump through multiple hoops or have specialized knowledge to obtain important information.

By contrast, here’s what the average person would have to do to even look at the bulk-downloadable data from FracFocus:
  • Download, install, configure and operate a major database server system, Microsoft SQL Server Management Studio, as well as SQL Server Configuration Manager. They are free, but hard to find on the Microsoft download website (the latest version is here). They have terribly un-intuitive interfaces once they’re running. They are also PC-specific, so Mac users are out of luck.
  • Purchase Microsoft Access, a database program not included in the regular version of Microsoft Office (the one that includes Word, Excel and PowerPoint). Microsoft charges $109.99; Amazon’s price is $99.99. (You could use a different database program, but the instructions provided by FracFocus are Access-specific.)
  • Follow a complicated series of steps – laid out in a nine-page PDF document provided by FracFocus – to convert the data to a form usable by Microsoft Access.
  • Construct queries in Access – not a simple point-and-click database program by any stretch – and interpret the results.
This process is not for the faint of heart, nor for the computer-inexperienced.

Even then, the data are not presented clearly. Rather than a company simply listing how many gallons of water and how many pounds of which chemicals it pumped deep underground at which well, key numbers are presented as percentages of the final fracking fluid. That requires a significant series of careful database queries and spreadsheet calculations to get actual usable figures.

With luck, Pennsylvania’s reporting system will set a new standard for public disclosure of, and citizen access to, data related to fracking. The creation of separate databases for every state where fracking occurs is not the ideal solution – a high-quality national database would be better. But until FracFocus catches up to the standards of data quality and user-friendliness people expect in the 21st century, citizens will need to look to the states to protect their access to this important information that affects their health and well-being.