The website FracFocus.org has been publishing chemical disclosures of the fracking industry since 2011. Unfortunately, the site is cumbersome to use for all but trivial searches and the data set is plagued by enduring errors and data gaps. These and other obstacles have hindered public examination of this critical data.
To address this issue, a tool to help dive deeper into these disclosures is now being sponsored by FracTracker. Open-FF uses a combination of open-source software and manual curation to clarify and correct FracFocus data, to calculate quantities of chemicals and to provide perspective on chemicals and companies across the FracFocus data. Open-FF also provides an online browser to make searching easier. Example searches are illustrated below.
In 2011, with the public outcry building over hidden fracking practices in the early years of the fracking boom, some companies began voluntarily using FracFocus, a chemical disclosure website. Initially, only a handful of operating companies submitted data and the “Find-a-Well” tool for that data was rudimentary, but it was a big improvement from the previous dearth of information. The primary unit of data within FracFocus is a disclosure, documented by a PDF file, that lists chemicals used in a single fracking event at a single well. This disclosure also includes important information such as water volume used, companies involved, names of products, location, dates and more. Within a few years, many states began requiring companies to report chemical usage through FracFocus. Currently, roughly 1,000 new disclosures are added to FracFocus every month and the system documents over 200,000 fracking jobs. It is probably the largest publicly available source of data on the use of fracking chemicals.
While the industry stresses the transparency of FracFocus, complaints about the system are common. For the first four years, the site published data only as PDF files. Using these files is cumbersome for anything but small searches. Only in 2015 did FracFocus release a bulk version of the data that could be downloaded. Further, for most disclosures between 2011 and mid-2013, chemical data is still not available in the bulk download (although it can be accessed through individual PDFs). Also, as early as Aug. 2011, the FracFocus site promised a map search tool to find wells of interest, “[w]ithin the next few weeks.” That tool was only released in early 2023. The general information on the website is industry-positive; for example, there is no information about the toxicity of the documented chemicals and the quantity of chemicals is presented in a manner that obscures heavy uses. Finally, the FracFocus data is full of errors and omissions, the disclosures are in a number of different formats, and trade secrets hide a surprising fraction of the materials disclosed. All of this creates obstacles that keep the public from exploring this critical information.
Understanding chemical usage in fracking has long been a thread in FracTracker Alliance’s history. It was established in 2010 as a project of the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health. The three-year project included the launch of a website called FracTracker, a tool to gather and compile data to help citizens, community groups, government agencies, and public health officials understand the impacts of unconventional gas extraction from the Marcellus Shale. In 2012, FracTracker Alliance became a 501(c)3 non-profit organization with the mission to study, map, and communicate the risks of oil and gas development. During that time, FracTracker has illuminated the various pathways by which chemicals used by the industry can affect human health and the environment.
The FracTracker team has managed to use the FracFocus data despite the obstacles. Researchers here have extracted information from FracFocus about water use and sand use and have used the chemical lists to search for trade secret records and evidence of PFAS use. But it is often hard work.
Open-FF is an independent project to transform the FracFocus data into a useful resource for researchers, journalists and community advocates. The open source project has been evolving for several years and FracTracker Alliance has recently started sponsoring the effort.
At its core, Open-FF simply takes the FracFocus data and pairs it with corrections, clarifications, calculations, and alerts that add perspective to the industry’s published data. This core data set is then packaged in a number of ways to make it available online to everyone from the hard-core data analyst to the non-technical casual browser. Two of the most important features of a chemical disclosure are unambiguous chemical identity and quantity.
Chemicals in FracFocus are disclosed with two identifiers: a name and a CAS Registry Number® (the Chemical Abstract Service assigns authoritative identifiers for materials). Unfortunately, there are often errors in one or both of these identifiers and they can even be conflicting. Where possible, Open-FF clarifies the identities; when not possible, it flags problem records. There are currently over 1,300 materials identified.
Most of those chemicals will be unfamiliar to users and FracFocus has nothing to say about a chemical’s hazards. To help users, Open-FF identifies when a material is a chemical of concern (for example, is on the Clean Water Act list) and includes summaries of toxicity (such as EPA’s ChemInformatics) when available. But the unfortunate reality is that our understanding of the health and environmental impacts of fracking chemicals trails far behind the industry’s introduction of new untested materials. Open-FF is working to develop new ways of helping the public find up-to-date research and perspectives on the potential hazards of fracking chemicals.
FracFocus provides a limited perspective of chemical quantity. For example, when FracFocus presents a chemical’s quantity, it reports the percentage (by weight) of the chemical compared to the overall fracking fluid. So, for the chemical “water,” FracFocus presents something like 85%. For “sand,” it will probably be something like 14%. The fracking “additives” together are typically less than 1%. The percentages of individual additives are often tiny. Viewing chemical quantity from only this perspective does indeed make the chemical’s contribution seem insignificant.
However, another way to view chemical quantity is by mass; that is, the absolute weight of the chemical material used. Open-FF uses the FracFocus data to calculate that weight. For example, a typical fracking job in 2022 used 16 million gallons of water. That’s about 130 million pounds of water (1 gallon of water weighs about 8.3 pounds). If we use that typical percentage 85% for water, that means the total fracking fluid weighs about 156 million pounds. One more calculation: a typical percentage of hydrochloric acid is 0.06% of the whole fracking fluid and that translates into over 90,000 pounds of acid, which is hardly insignificant. There are many fracking jobs where hydrochloric acid use is much greater – currently, there are more than 300 fracking jobs in the data set reporting over 1,000,000 pounds of the acid. While a user could calculate those weights directly from the data provided in FracFocus, Open-FF calculates weights for all FracFocus records (where data are sufficient) and users have easy access to those values.
Ways to Use Open-FF
What follows are illustrations of basic uses of Open-FF. For this, we will use the Data Browser, which allows users to explore the FracFocus data without downloading data sets; a user only needs an internet connection. (Graphs and tables are best viewed on a large screen.) Tables in the Browser are interactive:
- Click on the column heading to sort, click twice to reverse sort
- Use the Search Bar to filter the table to rows that only contain your text
Navigating to Open-FF’s chemical index reveals a table of over 1,300 chemicals reported to FracFocus. The table shows each chemical’s name and CAS number, how many times it has been reported, the mass of larger records, and what lists of chemicals of concern it is on. To show those FracFocus chemicals on, say, the Drinking Water Safety and Health Advisory list, type “DWSHA” into the search bar; the table is then filtered to show only those chemicals. (Scroll down to find the list of available “lists” to filter by.)
Let’s look at a specific chemical on the Safe Drinking Water Act lists (note that fracking is currently exempted from SDWA regulations). In the Chemical Index, type “ethylene glycol” into the search bar or navigate to “107-21-1” and click on the CAS number link (or just click here). This takes you to the chemical’s detail page that shows:
- how frequently it is used,
- an interactive map of where it is used,
- graphs and interactive tables of quantities used
- what companies are the dominant users,
- links to Google maps for the largest uses
- the EPA’s ChemInformatics summary (when available) of the material’s toxicity across 20 categories
For ethylene glycol, we find from this page that it is used in over 40% of disclosures across many states and that 5 companies (Marathon, Chesapeake, BHP, Pioneer and XTO/Exxon) have each used over 10 million pounds of this chemical. The ChemInformatics summary indicates the chemical is of ‘High’ or ‘Very High’ toxicity in nine of twenty categories.
Most states allow companies to hide the identity of a chemical by claiming it as a trade secret. In FracFocus such claims are identified by dozens of different terms. Open-FF aggregates those terms to make it easier to find all trade secret records at once. While we cannot know what the chemicals are, knowing the Where, Who and How Much can be illuminating.
From the Chemical Index, search for “proprietary” and click on that link (or just click here). Here we discover that trade secret claims are made in over 80% of disclosures (over 800,000 individual records) and for a large number of records, the supplier is also obscured. Some individual proprietary records are over 1,000,000 pounds.
- An interactive map and summary table of county activity,
- A table of the operating companies active in the state,
- A graph summarizing the extent of proprietary claims through time,
- A table of the number of fracked wells within school districts.
FracFocus disclosures list a single company as “operator” but often several “suppliers” are associated with individual chemicals on the disclosure. Over the 12 years FracFocus has been accumulating disclosures, the number of named operators has grown to over 1,500.
To find a named operator, start at the Operator Index. Find the company of interest; for example, you could type “Chevron USA” or “Laramie” or “Apache” or “Devon” into the search bar. Click on the link for that company. From there you will be shown:
- Two maps indicating where the company has worked,
- A graph of when it was active in different states,
- A summary of how frequently some chemicals of concerned are used by this company,
- How much water was used,
- What suppliers they use,
- How frequently they make Trade Secret claims.
A similar table for Suppliers is in development.
While many new disclosures are published at FracFocus every month, it can be difficult to find them on that site. However, roughly each month, Open-FF updates its data set and publishes a summary of the new fracking jobs. These summaries include:
- Where they are occurring,
- How much water was used,
- Summaries of Chemicals of Concern and Trade Secret claims,
- A table that details each new disclosure. This table can be searched by location or operator name and includes actual the fracking date (many are published long after the job is finished), links to a Google map, and more.
A Work in Progress
Open-FF is not a finished product. We are working on a tool to help users create lists of chemicals around specific locations such as schools or individual residences. We are trying to develop ways users can better understand the disclosed chemicals, or at least learn when chemicals are not yet well documented.
As the Open-FF project continues to mature, please help us make it more useful to you. Let us know what features would help you better understand these data.
References & Where to Learn More
Avidan, Miron, Dror Etzion, and Joel Gehman. “Opaque Transparency: How Material Affordances Shape Intermediary Work.” Regulation & Governance, no. 2 (2019): 197–219. https://doi.org/10.1111/rego.12217.
Kinchy, Abby, and Guy Schaffer. “Disclosure Conflicts: Crude Oil Trains, Fracking Chemicals, and the Politics of Transparency.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 43, no. 6 (November 1, 2018): 1011–38. https://doi.org/10.1177/0162243918768024.
Konschnik, Katherine, and Archana Dayalu. “Hydraulic Fracturing Chemicals Reporting: Analysis of Available Data and Recommendations for Policymakers.” Energy Policy 88 (January 1, 2016): 504–14. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2015.11.002.
Trickey, Kevin, Nicholas Hadjimichael, and Prachi Sanghavi. “Public Reporting of Hydraulic Fracturing Chemicals in the USA, 2011–18: A before and after Comparison of Reporting Formats.” The Lancet Planetary Health 4, no. 5 (May 1, 2020): e178–85. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(20)30076-0.
Where Open-FF has been used
Underhill V., et al. 2023. Outcomes of the Halliburton Loophole: Chemicals regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act in US fracking disclosures, 2014–2021. Environmental Pollution. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2022.120552 (Commentary)
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