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EPA Science Review Panel Questions Conclusion of Study on Fracking, Drinking Water

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Science Advisory Board (SAB) has taken issue with EPA’s conclusion in last year’s landmark report that found hydraulic fracturing (fracking) has had no “widespread, systemic impacts” to drinking water, opening the door for renewed public debate on the subject.

The 30-member SAB Hydraulic Fracturing Research Advisory Panel, made up largely of academics with a handful of industry representatives, submitted its draft review Thursday commenting on last year’s draft “Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources” published by EPA (see Daily GPI, June 4, 2015).

For the industry and its proponents, last year’s report served as vindication against claims from activists, some in the public and previous (and heavily criticized) EPA reports that fracking contaminates drinking water.

But in a letter to Administrator Gina McCarthy, SAB singled out the oft-quoted phrasing from EPA’s executive summary for criticism.

“The SAB has concerns regarding the clarity and adequacy of support for several major findings...that seek to draw national-level conclusions regarding the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources,” SAB wrote, pointing to what it suggested are discrepancies between “observations, data, and levels of uncertainty presented and discussed in the body” of the report and the conclusions drawn in the executive summary.

“Of particular concern in this regard is the high-level conclusion statement...that ‘We did not find evidence that hydraulic fracturing mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.’ The SAB finds that this statement does not clearly describe the system(s) of interest (e.g., groundwater, surface water) nor the definitions of ‘systemic,’ ‘widespread,’ or ‘impacts.’ The SAB is also concerned that this does not reflect the uncertainties and data limitations described in the body of the Report associated with such impacts.

“The statement is ambiguous and requires clarification and additional explanation.”

The SAB said the EPA “appropriately aimed to develop national-level analyses and perspective” but said the report should do more to account for “the importance of local impacts,” which “can be severe.” SAB recommended that EPA include specific information on cases in Dimock, PA, Pavillion, WY, and Parker County, TX, “where hydraulic fracturing activities are perceived by many members of the public to have caused significant local impacts to drinking water resources.”

Industry advocates criticized SAB’s draft review after it was released, with Katie Brown of pro-fracking group Energy in Depth writing in a blog post that the panel’s recommendations are “completely inconsistent with its mandate, which is to provide objective guidance on scientific matters.”

Brown noted that subsequent investigations into the cases reported at Dimock, Pavillion and Parker County all failed to find sufficient evidence of a link between fracking and methane migration into drinking water. Most recently, a state investigation into the Pavillion contamination case found it “unlikely” that fracking caused the water well issues reported by residents (see Shale Daily, Dec. 22, 2015).

“SAB is not asking EPA to include these instances due to facts and evidence, but instead due to public perception. That’s simply not science,” Brown said.

Brown was also sharply critical of SAB’s suggestion that EPA’s summary of its findings wasn’t sufficiently clear.

“EPA’s use of the terms ‘systemic,’ ‘widespread’ and ‘impacts’ are not ambiguous: EPA’s language accurately reflects the data in the report, which did not show a pervasive or inherent threat of water contamination from fracking,” Brown wrote. “EPA even offers more clarity, noting that while there were some instances of water impacts” from processes related to hydraulic fracturing and oil and gas extraction “the number of these instances ‘was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.’ In other words, EPA is appropriately describing a process that, while not risk free, is not an inherent or pervasive risk to water resources.”

Scott Segal, a partner with law firm Bracewell & Giuliani LLP, which frequently represents energy interests, also criticized SAB’s draft recommendations, suggesting that the panel was influenced by anecdotal information.

“As someone who participated in the SAB process, I can confirm that reviewers were presented with no new information that challenges the finding in the EPA draft report of no ‘widespread’ or ‘systemic’ contamination resulting from natural gas development. The SAB panel did hear a parade of anecdotal statements, many of which came from plaintiffs in active litigation,” Segal said via email. “By contrast, the SAB panel had before it conclusions from the National Academy of Sciences, the US Geological Survey, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, MIT, GAO, the Groundwater Protection Council, and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission - all largely supportive of the claim that contamination is neither widespread or systemic, just as EPA’s Draft Assessment found.  

“The experts at EPA’s Office of Research and Development should not let largely discredited, anecdotal or litigation-inspired evidence stand in the way of conclusions based on scientific consensus.”

The SAB panel will be revising its draft report over a series of upcoming meetings in the next two months.

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