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A new paper from School of Business professor Joel Gehman examines FracFocus, a non-regulatory online registry purporting to inform affected communities and the wider public in Canada and the United States about the environmental and health risks associated with hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.

Fracking and the opaque transparency of self-regulation

A new paper from School of Business associate professor Joel Gehman examines FracFocus, a non-regulatory online registry purporting to inform North Americans about the risks associated with hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.

Gehman concludes that despite being a popular tool for industry, as well as provincial and state governments, the information disclosed by FracFocus is largely unhelpful to everyday citizens. Information disclosed via regulator-operated websites is more accessible than information disclosed via FracFocus, and is presented in a way that better supports public decision-making.


Fracking and the opaque transparency of self-regulation

Guest

Joel Gehman — Associate professor of Strategic Management and Organization, Alberta School of Business

Host

Andy Grabia — Digital Communications, Alberta School of Business


June 26, 2019   15 minute listen

Episode Highlights

  • Fracking is a general term for a set of technologies employed in the production of oil and gas from unconventional shale formations, including high volume, multistage slickwater hydraulic fracturing, and horizontal drilling.
  • The practice dates back to the 1940s but has become very popular over the past decade, particularly in the United States.
  • The full extent of its impact on the environment is unknown, but fracking has been associated with an array of potentially detrimental impacts to the environment and public health, including water consumption and contamination, air pollution, and induced seismicity (earthquakes).
  • FracFocus is a self-regulatory initiative with strong industry ties, charged with disclosing data pertaining to the chemicals used in oil and gas wells completed using fracking in Canada and the United States.
  • Even though FracFocus is only supposed to be an intermediary, in many cases it has become the de facto statutory disclosure channel for regulators. As of 2018, its members included the governors of 38 oil and gas producing states, plus eight Canadian provinces, as well as appointed representatives from related agencies.
  • While FracFocus does share data pertaining to fracking, it does so in an opaque manner, and there are issues with the accessibility, granularity, comprehensibility and timeliness of the data being shared.
  • In many cases, the information disclosed via regulator-operated websites was more accessible than information disclosed via FracFocus and was presented at a level of granularity and comprehensibility that better supported public decision-making.
  • FracFocus is an example of how a non-official yet formalized intermediary can precede, catalyze, and funnel official regulation in a way that favours industry rather than the public.
  • Intermediaries like FracFocus raise the question of the role that self-regulation plays in business, and whether or not such intermediaries have a true public benefit.

Further Reading

Opaque transparency: How material affordances shape intermediary work — Miron Avidan, Dror Etzion, Joel Gehman

Alberta Energy Regulator suspends fracking well linked to Monday earthquake — CBC Edmonton