FracFocus site criticized in Harvard report

WILLISTON, N.D. — The website North Dakota and several other states use to monitor hydraulic fracturing has too many flaws to be effective, says a new report from Harvard Law School.

The report, released this week, says an evaluation of FracFocus, a website that allows companies to disclose the chemicals used in fracking, revealed that the site fails as a tool for regulating industry compliance.

However, some of the shortcomings mentioned in the report are issues that North Dakota’s Department of Mineral Resources is working to improve.

North Dakota began requiring companies to disclose chemicals to FracFocus in April 2012 as one of several new rules adopted by the North Dakota Industrial Commission.

Colorado, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas and Utah also direct companies to report to FracFocus, according to the report.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the process of extracting oil and gas from underground formations using pressurized fluids, sand and chemicals.

States require that companies report to FracFocus during a certain time period. For North Dakota, the requirement is 60 days within the completion of a well.

However, the website does not notify a state when it receives a disclosure and most states cannot easily determine when a disclosure is made, the report said.

Alison Ritter, spokeswoman for the Department of Mineral Resources, said monitoring the timeliness of disclosures is a concern for state officials as well.

The department did an audit last year to see how well companies operating in North Dakota were complying with the new rule.

The audit found that eight companies had not complied during the first months and those companies were sent letters directing them to comply, Director Lynn Helms told industry leaders at a North Dakota Petroleum Council event in September.

When contacted Wednesday, Ritter said she did not immediately have information about how those eight companies are now complying.

North Dakota is working with the Groundwater Protection Council, one of the organizations that run FracFocus, to improve online databases so the state can more effectively monitor when companies submit the disclosures, Ritter said. Information technology staff from North Dakota attended a meeting with the agency last week to work on solving that problem, she said.

Another loophole the report raises is that FracFocus does not have state-specific forms, so some companies may neglect to report some information that is required by those states.

Ritter said that loophole doesn’t exist for North Dakota, however, because the state requirement is the same as what FracFocus requires.

The report also said most states do not receive the disclosure forms and FracFocus staff do not review the forms, which may encourage companies to undervalue careful reporting. The report recommends that states require companies to submit FracFocus forms to the relevant state agency, which is a requirement Texas has.

In addition, the report raised concerns that companies may not report chemicals for trade secret reasons. It recommends that states adopt consistent trade secret standards.

The report also says the database is difficult to search.

Ritter said that while FracFocus can be improved, it is providing North Dakota residents more transparency and allows them to look up individual wells.

“I think FracFocus is a step in the right direction and it’s been a good thing for North Dakota,” Ritter said.

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