New database could shed light on shale drillers’ chemical use

A free, interactive database of company fracking reports released Wednesday offers a new tool to answer fundamental questions about drilling operations nationwide.

The shale gas industry escaped federal disclosure requirements through what critics call the “Halliburton loophole,” an exemption to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act passed in 2005. But most states where hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, occurs impose some requirements on drillers to disclose information about the location, chemicals used, geologic characteristics of the site, details about the hydraulic fracture method used and methods of wastewater disposal.

Eight states mandate producers place the required information into a database called FracFocus that’s run by a shale-gas-industry group called the Groundwater Protection Council. Those states are Colorado, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Texas, North Dakota, Montana, Mississippi and Pennsylvania.

Unfortunately for researchers who want to analyze data to determine patterns and better understand fracking nationwide, FracFocus is difficult to use, said Paul Woods, chief technical officer of SkyTruth, a Shepherdstown, West Virginia-based environmental group.

“They’ve got all the data, but unfortunately it’s very unfriendly with regard to aggregating all that data,” Woods said.

Reports of fracking operations in FracFocus can be downloaded as PDF files. But it’s  difficult for researchers and activists to extract data from large numbers of these files, so Woods and his colleagues developed software that did it for them. They then used that software to pull data from 27,000 reports of fracking operations and collected the results into a single searchable database. So far that has allowed the group to begin answering several questions about the often-secretive industry. For example, they’ve calculated that:

• the volume of water used annually in fracking operations is more than what tumbles over Niagara Falls in 24 hours;

fewer than one in three fracking operations in West Virginia disclosed the chemicals they’d used, as required;

diesel fuel was used in hundreds of fracking operations nationwide, in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Now that the database has been assembled, SkyTruth’s team is sharing the information.

“We built it for our own use and we realized a lot of other researchers could do a lot more with it than we can,” Woods said.

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