Issue Date: February 15, 2016
Scientists, Environmental Activists Question EPA’S Broad Conclusion On Fracking
The public is looking to the Environmental Protection Agency to provide accurate and clear information about the safety of hydraulic fracturing as a method to extract for oil and gas. EPA is compiling the most comprehensive report to date on the impacts of fracking on drinking water. Federal lawmakers and state regulators are expected to use the document as they set policies for the extraction practice.
In October 2009, Congress required EPA to study the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water. The agency released a draft of its study for public review in June 2015 to mixed reviews from groups representing the oil and gas industry and environmental activists.
Public concern about fracking has grown in the past six years as oil and gas development has become more visible throughout parts of the U.S. Northeast. Fracking is an extraction technique that uses millions of liters of water mixed with sand and a blend of proprietary chemicals to release oil or gas trapped in rock. The technique has been linked to methane contamination of drinking water wells, air pollution, and induced earthquakes associated with underground disposal of fracking wastewater.
Now, official review of EPA’s study is under way by the agency’s independent Science Advisory Board (SAB), and a significant part of the discourse has focused on a three-word phrase: “widespread, systemic impacts.”
In the executive summary of its 599-page draft report, EPA concluded that it had found no evidence of “widespread, systemic impacts” to drinking water resources in the U.S. from fracking activities. The oil and gas industry took the agency’s words as a declaration of fracking’s safety. Environmental activists, meanwhile, immediately called for EPA to take back what many considered to be a sweeping, overly broad statement.
The scientists and engineers tasked with reviewing the study sent a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in January calling on EPA to revise its “widespread, systemic impacts” statement. The report should more fully reflect uncertainties about the effects of fracking and acknowledge the severe environmental consequences some areas have experienced, the letter said.
Getting the language right—communicating its message clearly—has big implications for the first fracking study of this scope and scale, said Briana Mordick, a staff scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. “It’s not at all trivial whether EPA communicates this information accurately.”
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After it released its draft, EPA received more than 106,000 public comments on it. Generally, industry representatives applauded EPA’s work, environmental groups questioned the agency’s conclusions, and homeowners shared personal stories about losing access to clean drinking water because of fracking operations.
“The level of engagement by the public is heartening,” said David A. Dzombak, an engineering professor and department head at Carnegie Mellon University and chair of the scientific panel reviewing EPA’s draft study. At a two-day teleconference earlier this month, the panel heard from nearly 40 members of the public and industry representatives.
One of commenters, Anthony R. Ingraffea, a Cornell University engineering professor, thanked EPA for its analysis done under what he called “trying circumstances” created by the oil and gas industry. He complimented the advisers for questioning the agency’s top-line findings.
“There was tremendous pressure by the oil and gas industry to limit the study to only hydraulic fracturing,” just the injections into a well to break a rock formation, Ingraffea told C&EN. “It would have been very unfortunate if EPA had succumbed to that pressure.”
Instead, EPA studied drinking water impacts from the entire hydraulic fracturing water cycle. This includes acquisition of water for fracturing, the mixing and use of fracturing fluids, the return to the surface of a mix of injected water and highly saline “produced” water from geologic formations, and wastewater treatment and disposal.
“People whose drinking water has been harmed by oil and gas development really don’t care how that harm happened. They don’t care whether it was fracking or some other element of the entire water cycle,” Ingraffea said. “They only know that they no longer have access to water from their own drinking water wells, and the responsibility of EPA is to determine whether that has happened and to point out all, not just one, possible causes.”
Critics of the draft continued to fault EPA for appearing to minimize the local impacts of the hydraulic fracturing water cycle in favor of a generalized, national statement. Limited analysis of previous contamination events and inadequate discussion of uncertainties surrounding the effects of the hydraulic fracturing water cycle also lessen the report’s substance, many commenters said.
“There’s more to the ‘widespread, systemic’ line than the generic dictionary meanings of these words,” said Hugh MacMillan, a senior researcher for consumer watchdog group Food & Water Watch. “Perhaps widespread and systemic, at a national scale, should not be where we set the bar.”
Nichole Saunders, representing the advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund, said EPA has developed a good report that will serve as a springboard for the future. However, she added, the agency should be clear about additional research needed “to fill the large number of data gaps, uncertainties, and limitations that hindered this analysis to allow for more robust conclusions in the future.”
Oil and gas industry representatives offered a different view. For example, Erik Milito, director of upstream and industry operations for the American Petroleum Institute, an industry group, praised the draft report’s conclusion, calling the science “credible and clear.”
Most of the SAB members agreed that EPA should provide clarity on its key finding to avoid confusion and misinterpretation. Among them is Pennsylvania State University water resources professor Elizabeth W. Boyer, who urged her colleagues to remove the ambiguity.
“Whether or not you like the wording, it’s been widely quoted and interpreted in different ways,” Boyer told the panel. Therefore, EPA needs to be more explicit about the meaning of “widespread, systemic impacts,” she added.
The panel could recommend that EPA undertake additional data gathering to fill gaps in its report before finalizing it. But during the teleconference, the advisers focused on having the agency explain the challenges it faced in obtaining detailed information about accidents, fracking fluids, and water usage, among other issues.
Daniel J. Goode, a U.S. Geological Survey research hydrologist, pressed the panel to consider public comments that asked for analysis of incidents of drinking water contamination linked to fracking.
“I would not want to see us basically say things are hard and leave it at that. That’s not an adequate way to make decisions about what to do,” Goode said. “Some things that are hard are worth doing.”
Dzombak said he expects the panel to revise the draft of its review this month. If the process moves forward as expected, the final review could be sent to EPA as soon as May, he said.
EPA said in a statement that its draft assessment cites more than 950 sources and that the final report will be revised to reflect scientific literature published since the release of the draft.
“We will use the comments from SAB, along with the comments from members of the public, to evaluate how to revise the draft assessment,” the agency said. Pending completion of the scientific review, EPA expects to finalize the study later this year.
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