Last June, when the Obama EPA released its draft study on the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources, it downplayed the impacts as not “widespread, systemic.” News organizations ran with this top-line claim, generally failing to recognize the line as spurious, and out of context.
But the study never came close to quantifying how widespread or systemic impacts have been from fracking. Now scientific advisors are panning the administration for how it handled the study — and for the “widespread, systemic” line in particular — but in this moment of truth, news media that ran with the top-line claim are nowhere to be found.
We at Food & Water Watch were quick to point out the study’s limitations. The actual text of the thousand-page study is a testament to how, at every turn, EPA’s efforts to evaluate the “frequency and severity” of the impacts of fracking on drinking water resources were thwarted by significant “data limitations and uncertainties.”
The top-line claim has become controversial because it papers over this fact: it presents a conclusion that is unsupported. The Obama Administration’s embrace of fracking as central to an “all-of-the-above” energy policy suggests political interference occurred, akin to what happened with the Bush EPA’s 2004 study of fracking’s impacts on drinking water.
In August, we led a large group in submitting detailed comments that outline the problems with the final draft study, as well as with the administration’s press release that rolled it out. Many others have chimed in on how the study whitewashed the impacts of fracking on drinking water. (Fracking’s impacts on our climate, in contrast, have already been greenwashed.)
This fall, under the auspices of the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB), an “independent” panel of 30 scientists, engineers and oil and gas industry representatives has been reviewing the study. Many of the panelists have joined the public in honing in on the “widespread, systemic” top-line claim as unsupported and off base.
When the panel met in Washington, D.C. at the end of October, it erupted in spontaneous applause after one scientist suggested replacing the EPA’s summary of the study’s findings with the following:
“Water quality impacts associated with hydraulic fracturing have occurred in a number of locations. Occasionally, these have been severe. Many of the impacts have been associated with failures to follow industry best practices and might be preventable. Quantifying the frequency and severity of water quality impacts is difficult to do accurately because of data limitations including: reporting of incidents is often voluntary, uneven follow-up regarding impacts, lack of systematic study of these impacts, sealed information in litigation, lack of knowledge about or monitoring methods for compounds in hydraulic fracturing fluids. With the available information, the number of documented cases of impacts is small relative to the number of wells developed using [hydraulic fracturing].”
It’s almost as if the line was a late edition to the 1,000-page study, by someone who had not worked on drafting it.
In many cases, the agency itself is to blame for the lack of available information. The agency’s omission of three high-profile cases of contamination — in Dimock, Pennsylvania, Parker County, Texas and Pavillion, Wyoming — stands out as one example of the EPA’s failure to protect. We’ve joined with affected landowners John Fenton, Steve Lipsky and Ray Kemble to demand that the agency re-open the investigations it abruptly abandoned in these cases, and include the cases in its study.
We are pleased that, after hearing from people involved in these cases who are not under gag orders after signing court settlements, the panelists recommended that EPA include explicit summaries of the cases the agency abandoned. But this is far from the necessary step of reopening the cases, and it remains to be seen whether the EPA dodges this recommendation from the panel.
The panel’s rejection of the “widespread, systemic” line is heartening, but there’s work to be done to ensure that the EPA — and the administration — walk back the summary of the study’s takeaways, as currently recommended by the panel.
On December 3 there will be a public teleconference, during which the panelists will at least come close to finalizing their recommendations to the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board. The SAB will in turn review the panel’s report before passing along recommendations to the EPA to consider in finalizing the study. We need people listening in, and weighing in, so the EPA knows that it won’t be able to get away with ignoring the advice of its scientific advisors. (The call-in and webcast information is here.)
At the same time, it is important to be mindful that recommendations from the panelists cut both ways. Five of the 30 panelists are currently employed within the oil and gas industry and another three, at least, conduct industry-funded research as academics. In fact, during the meetings, one of the panelists — an academic — repeatedly used “we” as synonymous with “industry.”
Given the clear presence of conflicts of interest among some members of the panel, Food & Water Watch and allies will be continue to watch this process closely.