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Harvard Eco-Activist vs. FracFocus: Duping the Media

By John Krohn -- April 26, 2013

new study from researchers at Harvard University alleges that FracFocus “fails as a regulatory compliance tool.” Those of us who are actually familiar with the issues involved in fluid disclosure know that’s not true, but it seems the media saw a narrative too enticing to question: another alleged “failure” regarding hydraulic fracturing.

Here are a few examples:

  • Bloomberg News: “FracFocus Fails as Fracking Disclosure Tool, Study Finds”
  • Associated Press: “Report highlights problems with fracking database”
  • Dallas Morning News: “Fracking disclosure site contains ‘serious deficiencies,’ Harvard study says”
  • Denver Post: “Colorado fracking database questioned by Harvard study”
  • FuelFix/Houston Chronicle: “Harvard report slams fracturing chemical website”
  • E&E News: “FracFocus has ‘serious flaws,’ Harvard study says”

The problem is, most of these stories were essentially press releases describing publication of the study. Had the reporters done a little bit of investigation and research – like, say, what they do every darn time a study is released that finds hydraulic fracturing to be safe – their reports may have been much different. At the very least, the general public would have actually been able to weigh the claims in the study against the broader context in which it was released.

Here are four items that, for some reason, went underreported or completely unreported.

Lead Author Background

Think back to every study that had funding or assistance from industry. Can you think of any that were reported on without that affiliation mentioned?

Now, because we’re interested in the full story, let’s look the CV of the lead author of the Harvard study, Kate Konschnik, which took a grand total of three seconds to pull up via a Google search:

“Konschnik currently serves as staff director for Sen. Whitehouse’s Oversight Subcommittee on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. For the last three years, she has worked with Sen. Whitehouse’s office on a number of nationally significant environmental policy issues, including negotiations around Senate climate bill provisions (carbon offsets, carbon capture and sequestration, and adaptation funding), defense of EPA Clean Air Act rulemaking, and oversight of the 2010 Gulf oil spill.”

Yep, that’s the same Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) who was a co-sponsor of the FRAC Act, the legislation that would put EPA in control of regulating hydraulic fracturing, including the disclosure of additives. Gee, why would someone like that oppose a fully functional tool like FracFocus, which makes EPA regulation completely unnecessary?

And yes, it’s also the same Sen. Whitehouse who has authored a carbon tax and endorsed the activities of Bill McKibben, a well-known anti-fracking activist.

Whitehouse’s name appears in zero of the above mentioned stories.

Let’s continue:

“She was also awarded an International Environmental Law Fellowship at Earthjustice, to work on sea turtle protection and the application of international law to prevent oil spills in ecologically sensitive areas of the world.”

Yes, you read that right. In addition to working for an anti-fossil fuel U.S. Senator, Ms. Konschnik completed a fellowship with Earthjustice, one of the most well-known “green” groups in the country. Here’s how Earthjustice describes hydraulic fracturing:

“Fracking is a dangerous way of getting oil and gas and a shortsighted energy strategy.”

Ms. Konschnik was also a former member of the Montgomery County (Md.) Sierra Club’s executive committee, and we all know what the Sierra Club thinks about hydraulic fracturing.

To be clear, Ms. Konschnik, who left government to join Harvard Law School as Policy Director for the Environmental Law and Policy Program, has every right to affiliate with whatever environmental group she wishes.

But why were neither of those affiliations — of the study’s lead author, mind you — given even a single mention in any of the stories about the report?

Zero Contact with FracFocus

The Harvard study claims: “And of all the states relying on FracFocus, only Texas receives copies of the form.”

The Associated Press took that claim and ran with it:

“But the fact that reports are provided only to FracFocus, and not to state agencies, is another concern of the Harvard report. The authors said the reliance on a third-party database makes the information exempt from public information laws and could cause problems should the site ever go offline.”

Now, you would think a credible, academic attempt to understand a disclosure database would involve, at the very least, talking to the people who operate it. But apparently, at one of America’s most respected institutions, picking up a phone or sending a few emails was just too difficult:

“In an April 23 statement responding to ‘Legal Fractures,’ officials from the Groundwater Protection Council (GWPC), one agency involved in creating FracFocus, indicated they do notify states when companies file.  According to EnergyWire, in a story that ran April 24, 2013, “[i]t is then up to state officials to determine if the disclosures were filed in time and whether companies are following the rules governing trade secrets, the GWPC statement said.”  We will reach out to the GWPC to learn more about the process they outlined in their statement.” (emphasis added)

Indeed, as GWPC President Stan Belieu told Shale Daily:

“I am not aware of any state regulatory program that has been contacted by Harvard University to make inquiry of its capabilities. I do not understand how, without direct contact, this study can draw the conclusions it has.”

So, let’s get this straight: Before making a very serious accusation that there is zero notification to states when companies file their reports, the researchers at Harvard University didn’t see fit to call up the folks who actually created FracFocus and ask them? Even worse, they didn’t even bother to call many (if any) of the states and inquire about the process itself?

Once again, this fact appears in zero of the above-mentioned stories – even though the authors themselves now feel it necessary to admit their egregious mistake publicly (to their credit, by the way).

New FracFocus Iteration Completed

If researchers are truly interested in playing a constructive role in the debate over disclosure, then they’ll likely take into account context and ongoing developments. In the case of FracFocus, updated version – dubbed “FracFocus 2.0” – boasts more user-friendly tools, including searchability by chemical and date of disclosure (among others).

That’s not irrelevant, either, considering the Harvard researchers concluded of the current FracFocus system:

“…the limited search function sharply limits the utility of having a centralized data cache.”

The 2.0 system officially launched last November, but it won’t be until June of this year that all disclosures are required to use the new format. Now, we’re not Ivy League educated or anything. But wouldn’t it make sense for a study on the utility of FracFocus, including critiques about its search features and overall user-friendliness, to wait until upgrades to the system being studied are fully implemented – especially when those upgrades are less than two months out?

A constructive dialogue on benefits and drawbacks of any sort of regulatory activity requires that the topics discussed are done so in a manner that incorporates context and genuinely seeks to fix any problems that may exist. Blasting a disclosure system that will soon be obsolete literally just before the changes are incorporated is not a constructive attempt at reform; it’s gratuitous.

As you probably guessed, none of the major stories on the Harvard study mentioned any of this.

FracFocus Support Across the Spectrum

When Colorado passed its disclosure regulations in late 2011, the Environmental Defense Fund praised them as “a model for the nation.” The executive director of Colorado Conservation Voters said the “clear winners of the rulemaking today are the citizens of Colorado” because “all Coloradans will know what chemicals are being used in natural gas drilling in our state.”

Even Earthjustice – which, as mentioned above, hates hydraulic fracturing – said it was “good rule” and “an important step forward for Colorado.” Earthjustice represented a range of other environmental groups in the regulatory negotiations, including Earthworks, the National Wildlife Federation, and the San Juan Citizens Alliance.

What was at the core of Colorado’s disclosure regulations? Yep, you guessed it: the use of FracFocus.

Meanwhile, the Obama White House’s energy and climate adviser, Heather Zichal said the following last year: “As an administration, we believe that FracFocus is an important tool that provides transparency to the American people.”

But hey, who cares about that broad support when a few researchers at Harvard released a fundamentally and transparently flawed study suggesting the opposite?


J. D. Krohn is Communications Director at Energy In Depth, “a research, education and public outreach campaign focused on getting the facts out about the promise and potential of responsibly developing America’s onshore energy resource base – especially abundant sources of oil and natural gas from shale and other ‘tight’ reservoirs across the country.”

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