Among the many provisions under Act 13, Pennsylvania oil and gas operators now must join several other states by disclosing some generalized information about chemical additives to wells that undergo hydraulic fracturing to a national registry called FracFocus.org. On their main page, FracFocus describes their role in the following manner:
In a single year, FracFocus has made a national impact from the Beltway to the Bakken. During this time, more than 200 energy-producing companies have registered over 15,000 well sites through FracFocus.
This success is the result of nationally recognized organizations working with the oil and natural gas industry to provide public transparency. Learn more and see highlights from the first year of FracFocus.
However, there are strong differences of opinion on what transparency really means. Does it entail specific data about a well, general information about all the wells, or both? The chemical registry is focused on specifics about individual wells, and although the data is easily accessible for them, they don’t offer data downloads for users interested in a wider scope. Whether this amounts to data transparency has everything to do with the lens that one looks through.
Let’s say, for example, that you already know a bit about a given well. As a random example, let’s use API# 37-131-20104, a well operated by Chesapeake in Wyoming County, PA. When we conduct a search, we are given the opportunity to download a PDF where we can learn a great deal about the well that is not available from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) data download section. We learn, for example, that the well was fractured on May 8, 2012 using over 1.3 million gallons of water, as well as the maximum amounts used of chemical additives the hydraulic fracturing fluid, and why they were added to the mix.
Objectively, that is a large step forward in transparency, as this information was not available before. But what if your questions about the industry are broader? You may want to know, for example, if some operators are putting diesel fuel into the hydraulic fracturing fluid, or whether some anti-bacterial agents are more prominent in certain geographies than others. You might want to do a comparison on which companies claim data to be proprietary, relative to the industry as a whole, or whether there is any correlation between particularly noxious chemical additives and well production. To answer questions like these, you just need a summary of the data that FracFocus already offers. But unfortunately, FracFocus will not provide this aggregated data.
To help address questions such as these, SkyTruth.org has extracted the data from the PDF documents using a combination of automated and manual techniques, and have made the results available to FracTracker and the general public. The result is a major step forward in data transparency; even before the chemical data have been picked through and combed over, there are still several new types of data that the general public didn’t have access to before.
The data include over 26,000 records from FracFocus since January 1, 2011 from twenty different states around the country. Now it is possible for people other than industry insiders to learn about variables not provided by the various states, including depth of target formation, fracturing dates, amounts of water used. There is also a separate dataset including all listed chemicals at each well, which comes in at well over 800,000 records for the 21 months of the report.
Of course, users must remain mindful that this is not, in fact, a completely comprehensive dataset. While several states have recently required disclosure of the chemical additives, in remains a voluntary disclosure in other locations. Some of the chemicals are listed in the abstract, but marked as proprietary, which naturally limits our understanding of what was put into the well. And as with other large datasets of this sort, it is likely that there are a significant number of omissions and errors.
At FracTracker, we’d like to extend our gratitude to both FracFocus for collecting the data and making it public, and to SkyTruth, for aggregating it and making it more usable. In our view, both of these steps are critical for true data transparency. This transparency, in turn, is indispensable for making an enhanced understanding of the oil and gas industry possible.