Basic Data on Fracking Is Inaccessible

Frontier Group intern Dana Bradley wrote this post.

I spent the last six weeks of my Frontier Group internship with an assignment that any educated and able citizen should be able to complete. Using publicly available data I was supposed to collect information about fracking. Initially it seemed simple and straightforward; I was attempting to find the number of fracked wells and their production in about 30 states.

The process that followed was far from simple. Those six weeks were a frustration-filled goose chase where I scoured oil and gas regulatory agency websites, spent hours on the phone with state agency employees, and sent a multitude of politely persuasive email requests. It was exhausting and more importantly, in some cases it didn’t work.

What makes this (technically) publicly available data virtually inaccessible? When it comes to hydraulic fracturing there are a number of barriers and issues, starting with the language used when referring to fracking. In Frontier Group and Environment America Research & Policy Center’s 2013 Fracking By The Numbers report, we chose to define “fracking” as the practice of combining hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling. However, some states include vertical drilling in their definition. Other states don’t even use the term fracking, meaning that a curious citizen or data gatherer would have to know to look for other terms such as “directional” or “unconventional” drilling.

Another barrier was that some states have incomplete information. Colorado does not record fracked wells separately from other oil and gas wells in the state, which makes quantifying the full impact of fracking almost impossible. In Tennessee, fracking-related regulations did not come into effect until 2013, meaning that information on fracked wells prior to 2013 is neither reliable nor complete. Finally, some states that possess an enormous amount of data on fracking information lack a convenient way to separate it from information on other types of wells. In Texas, for example, the regulatory agency offered to sell me a dataset containing thousands of wells that I could sort through. This option became even less attractive when I learned of the $3,000 price tag. By charging such a fee, Texas makes basic information about oil and gas drilling inaccessible to citizens who want to understand its environmental and public health impacts.

None of my criticism is directed towards the state employees I interacted with; many of them were helpful and took time out of their days to direct me toward useful resources. My criticism is aimed at the subpar mechanisms used by state agencies to inform citizens. Even government-approved solutions—like FracFocus—that exist to increase transparency surrounding the practice of fracking are inadequate. FracFocus has a whole slew of problems including incomplete data, a difficult-to-use interface, and incompatibility with systems and software.

My point isn’t that I’m a frustrated intern with a difficult task (although that’s accurate). The problem is that I’m a frustrated American who thinks that citizens should not have to become detectives in order to uncover information about a controversial practice that is happening their backyards. We have a right to know this information and should be able to access it with ease.