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EPA Science Board Sparks Debate With Final Review of 2015 Fracking Study

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Science Advisory Board (SAB) on Thursday released its final review of EPA’s landmark study published last year on the impacts of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on drinking water resources.

The SAB took issue -- as it did in the draft version of its review released in January (see Shale Daily, Jan. 8) -- with the oft-cited conclusion in the study’s executive summary, in which EPA said it found no evidence to show that fracking has “led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.”

SAB wrote that EPA “sought to draw national-level conclusions regarding the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources. The SAB finds that several major summary findings do not clearly, concisely and accurately describe the findings as developed in the chapters” of the study and that the summary statements “are not adequately supported with data or analysis from within the body” of the report.

SAB’s review panel, made up primarily of university scientists and researchers as well as other stakeholders, found that “EPA did not support quantitatively its conclusion about lack of evidence for widespread, systemic impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources, and did not clearly describe the system(s) of interest (e.g., groundwater, surface water), the scale of impacts (i.e., local or regional), nor the definitions of ‘systemic’ and ‘widespread.’

“The SAB observes that the statement has been interpreted by readers and members of the public in many different ways. The SAB concludes that if the EPA retains this conclusion, the EPA should provide quantitative analysis that supports its conclusion that hydraulic fracturing has not led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources.”

SAB further found that “these major findings as presented within the Executive Summary are ambiguous and appear inconsistent with the observations, data and levels of uncertainty presented and discussed” later in the report.

While the majority of the 30-member review panel agreed with SAB’s final recommendations regarding the executive summary, four members dissented and felt that EPA’s original conclusion “is clear, unambiguous, concise and does not need to be changed or modified.

“While the report could have articulated the agency’s statistical assessment more clearly, there [have] not been any facts or evidence demonstrating a systemic or widespread impact to existing drinking water resources…,” the dissenters wrote. “If a systemic or widespread issue had been identified, the EPA and the state regulatory agencies would have quickly responded to such findings. In the absence of such documented events, the conclusion is clear that no systemic, widespread impact to drinking water resources is occurring.”

The dissenting panel members were Stephen Almond, director of research and development with Fritz Industries Inc.; Shari Dunn-Norman, professor of geosciences at Missouri University of Science and Technology; John Fontana, president of Vista GeoScience LLC; and Walt Hufford, director of government and regulatory affairs for Talisman Energy USA Inc.

Echoing the reactions to EPA’s study when it was released last year, groups on both sides of the fracking debate moved quickly to paint the SAB’s final recommendations as supportive of their respective positions.

The Sierra Club’s “Dirty Fuels Initiative” director Lena Moffitt said the environmental group “is pleased to see the EPA’s Science Advisory Board called out the agency’s conclusion that there is no ‘widespread, systemic’ evidence that fracking contaminates drinking water for what it is: not supported by scientific facts. The EPA’s own analysis shows that dirty oil and gas fracking contaminates drinking water, confirming what millions of Americans already know.”

Meanwhile, Katie Brown of Energy In Depth, an advocacy group backed by the Independent Petroleum Association of America, wrote in a blog post Thursday that “anti-fracking activists hoping for a damning report on EPA’s primary conclusion are likely to be disappointed.

“The panel does not ask EPA to modify or eliminate its topline finding of ‘no widespread, systemic impacts’ to groundwater from fracking -- it asks EPA to provide more details or a ‘quantitative analysis’ of how the agency came to the conclusion.”

Brown went on to note that “not once, in at least four drafts of recommendations, has the SAB panel pointed to any evidence that would contradict EPA’s topline finding...Without that evidence, SAB can only conclude that EPA’s topline finding is sound.”

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