Drillers to submit electronic records on fracking chemicals to Pa. DEP

Trucks line up in front of water tanks on a gas well site in Donegal, Washington County.
Trucks line up in front of water tanks on a gas well site in Donegal, Washington County.
Photo by Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
| Sunday, June 28, 2015, 9:00 p.m.

Pennsylvania will require shale gas companies to disclose electronically the chemicals they use in hydraulic fracturing in a new state-run database by next summer.

Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Quigley said the department will end its partnership with FracFocus, an independent online catalog of fracking records, and develop what he considers a more comprehensive and user-friendly online database.

“Our goal is to have a reporting tool that will provide ... much more downloadable and searchable information than FracFocus,” Quigley said.

The state will require operators to submit fracturing records electronically by March 2016. The database will start around June 2016, he said.

“We're not quite there yet, but we're well down the path,” Quigley said.

He plans to eventually integrate the records into a mapping system. Computer users would be able to click on a dot on a map and see all of the information for that well, including fracking chemicals used, inspection records and production reports submitted to DEP, Quigley said.

“It's going to be a comprehensive data set on oil and gas data in Pennsylvania,” he said.

Several Marcellus shale drillers, including Range Resources and Chesapeake Energy, began disclosing chemicals before the state required it in 2012. The North Fayette-based Marcellus Shale Coalition said the law is comprehensive enough.

“Our organization, which was a very early advocate of FracFocus participation, is committed to common-sense disclosure practices,” said spokeswoman Erica Clayton Wright.

The industry has gotten better at demystifying the process of fracking and drilling for the public, but broader disclosure is welcome, said Davitt Woodwell, president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. There should be more disclosure about all materials and liquids used on a well pad, along with those pumped underground, he said.

“There's a chance to understand that whole process better,” Woodwell said. “... For us, it's not just the fracking that's an issue.”

Pennsylvania is one of 15 states, including Ohio and West Virginia, that use FracFocus to catalog fracking records. Ground Water Protection Council, a nonprofit association of state agencies based in Oklahoma City, started running the database in 2010.

The DEP studied FracFocus' effectiveness last year and decided it did not allow users to download data sets and search for specific information easily, Quigley said.

“We think we can do even better,” he said.

FracFocus reports include a list of each chemical added; trade names, including descriptions of what they're used for in fracking the well; the concentration; and pressure applied in the well. State officials have access to all the data and determine what is required. Companies can designate parts of the records they say are confidential trade secrets, and the state will shield them from public disclosure in Pennsylvania.

DEP's database will be based on a disclosure form that separates the list of chemicals and trade names, which the department hopes will encourage drillers to disclose more. FracFocus is initiating a similar form when it updates its site this fall.

“We're just going to try to make the forms easier for companies who are trying to do it,” said Dan Yates, assistant executive director for the Ground Water Protection Council. “We're not forcing anyone to do it, but we're creating the option.”

What constitutes a trade secret remains a point of contention between drillers who seek to protect billions in technology investments and maintain a competitive edge, and environmental advocates who say the public's health depends on knowing every chemical used.

Pennsylvania's trade secret parameters will not change with the database unless legislators change the law, Quigley said. FracFocus does not enforce state deadlines nor check the records that companies submit, but DEP would, Quigley said.

Once records are submitted electronically, he said, the department can determine which companies have not filed and pursue them.

“We would take proper enforcement action, up to and including fines,” he said.

Katelyn Ferral is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5627 or kferral@tribweb.com.

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