Fracking Companies Have Been Getting Worse About Disclosing The Chemicals They Use

CREDIT: AP Photo/Pat Sullivan

A jar holding waste water from hydraulic fracturing is held up to the light.

Want to know what chemicals energy companies use in their hydraulic fracking operations? Turns out it’s getting harder and harder to answer that question.

According to a new study published in the journal Energy Policy, fracking companies have become less forthcoming since 2013 about the chemicals used in their operations, citing “the use of proprietary compounds” as grounds for limiting their disclosure.

The study, written by Harvard University researchers Kate Konschnik and Archana Dayalas as a follow-up to a similar analysis conducted in 2013, looked at more than 96,000 disclosures made between March 2011 and April 2015 on FracFocus, a hydraulic fracturing chemical registry. According to Inside Climate News, FracFocus was launched in 2011 as a tool for collecting voluntary disclosures from oil and gas companies, and was later adopted by more than 20 states in order to fulfill their chemical disclosure regulations.

But FracFocus’ ability to act as a proxy for state’s chemical disclosure regulations has been under fire for years. In the 2013 study, Koschnik argued that states were effectively giving up their oversight ability by directing oil and gas companies to FracFocus, and that the site failed to account for specific state-level requirements. By applying a “one-size-fits-all” approach to fracking chemicals, the study argued, FracFocus gave oil and gas companies too much leeway, allowing them to miss deadlines and withhold information.

That criticism set off a slew of improvements at FracFocus. In 2015, the site announced plans to improve its accuracy and access, pledging to reduce the amount of information withheld under the guise of “trade secrets.”

Konschnik told Inside Climate News that some of the improvements FracFocus has made — especially the ability to download data in bulk, which makes large-scale analysis of fracking wells easier — have been “huge.” But the new study still found a 16.5 percent withholding rate in forms filed between 2013 and April 2015, compared to 11 percent between 2011 and 2013.

Still, according to Inside Climate News, the study does point to ways in which FracFocus’ process could encourage companies to be more forthcoming with their disclosures.

For example, the data revealed that when companies reported chemicals by listing individual compounds without attributing each chemical to a fracking “product,” overall withholding rates dropped by more than 75 percent. The authors suggested FracFocus could alter its disclosure forms to encourage this type of reporting.

The issue of hydraulic fracturing has been under increasing amounts of scrutiny from communities and scientists as the practice continues to proliferate throughout the country. And while numerous studies have looked at the impact of fracking on air and water quality, fewer have looked at fracking’s potential impact on public health. Of the studies that do exist, some show a link between fracking and premature births as well as an increased rate of congenital heart defects in babies born to mothers living near fracking wells.

A scientific assessment conducted in California earlier this year found that the chemicals used in fracking throughout the state are largely unidentified, leaving state officials with little sense of how the chemicals impact the state’s water supply. And while the EPA currently has a list of 1,076 chemicals used in fracking, the list is incomplete, with many companies citing “trade secrets” as a means of withholding information.