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FracFocus Bulk Data Analyzed in New Report on Fracking

For years, the public, government agencies and organizations concerned about the environment have wanted more data on fracking – specifically about how much of which chemicals the oil and gas industry pumps at high pressure underground in hopes of extracting more fossil fuels.

Those data remain difficult to get. Recently, though, a government- and industry-funded database, FracFocus, has opened its data more fully.

What that information reveals is very useful, as is clear in our recent report, Fracking on University of Texas Lands: The Environmental Effects of Hydraulic Fracturing on Land Owned by the University of Texas System.

Using information Environment Texas Research & Policy Center obtained from a public records request, we were able to determine that there have been 4,350 wells drilled on University of Texas land since 2005. These lands were given to the university to raise funds to support its educational mission, but fracking activities have resulted in significant impacts to the environment. For example, fracking on university lands used at least 6 billion gallons of water between February 2012 and December 2014, a time when Texas was suffering from a historic drought and residents across the state were pressed to cut back on water use.

Public records also revealed that since 2008, at least 1.6 million gallons of pollutants have spilled into soil and groundwater from wells on university land. At five of those locations, cleanups are not yet complete; that work can take years.

The public records, however, do not tell us about the chemicals used in fracking on university lands. Those  data are held by FracFocus. But, until just a couple of months ago, it was all but impossible to obtain bulk data from FracFocus to allow for analysis of the cumulative or regional impacts of fracking.

FracFocus’ long-awaited decision to open the data for broader use allowed us to develop an estimate of the amount of chemicals used in fracking on University of Texas lands. Reliable data were available for just more than one-third of fracked wells on university land. At those 1,480 wells, fracking used 275 million pounds of chemicals, including:

  • 92.5 million pounds of hydrochloric acid, a caustic acid that can contaminate water;
  • 8.5 million pounds of methanol, which is suspected of causing birth defects;
  • More than 7.8 million pounds of chemicals that were not specifically identified or were only labeled as trade secrets, meaning their health and environmental effects cannot be determined;
  • More than 166.8 million pounds of other chemicals and substances of varying toxicity.

As the state’s flagship educational institution and a significant landholder, the University of Texas has a particular responsibility to protect the environment, Texas’ special places and public health.

These new data, offering specifics of chemicals introduced to the environment, show that increased transparency about fracking can give the university and the public at large better understanding of the industry and its practices, the better to protect the environment and human health. Non-governmental organizations like FracFocus, along with state and federal governments, must continue to press for greater transparency and the sharing of more – and more accurate – data about fracking, a practice with great implications for the environment and public health.