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EPA Fracking Study Is Flawed – But Reasons Why Are Obscured

In addition to the politics of the Obama Administration’s support for fracking, a narrow scope and EPA reliance on industry & captured state energy development agencies doom EPA study 

Study Delays allow gas industry to continue to create “facts on the ground” that guarantee irreversible impacts from fracking

EPA designated frack study as a "Highly Influential Scientific Assessment" - plays right along with industry strategy which seeks to delay, control the content, and weaken the findings and recommendations of the study to evade regulation and maximize production.


Last week, I suspected that there were substantive – as well as political – reasons for EPA’s late Friday afternoon news dump that released the progress report on EPA’s Fracking study (see: EPA Caught Taking a Fracking Dump).

Before reading the EPA study, I made two important points in that post:

1) the scope of the EPA study was far too narrow:

We attended a protest and testified on the public hearing in Binghamton NY, to scope that study (see: On the Threshold of a Fracking Nightmare).

At that hearing, we urged EPA to dramatically expand the scope of what then was contemplated as a narrow study on drinking water, to address cumulative impacts, climate change impacts, health effects, and land use change and ecological effects.

In this study, EPA is only looking at impacts to drinking water.

That means things like huge fugitive emissions of greenhouse gases and health effects of hazardous air pollutants are ignored. So are impacts to forests, wildlife and water quality destroyed by gas development access roads, drilling pads, etc. So are severe impacts to wetlands ecosystems and fisheries caused by withdrawals of billions of gallons of water to frack wells.

2) EPA itself acknowledged that the progress report did NOT  assess impacts on drinking water:

Here’s how EPA’s press release spun the study:

“WASHINGTON – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today provided an update on its ongoing national study currently underway to better understand any potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources. Results of the study, which Congress requested EPA to complete, are expected to be released in a draft for public and peer review in 2014. The update provided today outlines work currently underway, including the status of research projects that will inform the final study.  It is important to note that while this progress report outlines the framework for the final study, it does not draw conclusions about the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources, which will be made in the final study.”

In other words, EPA not only buried the Report in a Friday afternoon news dump before a major holiday, the Report itself merely kicked the can down the road and dodged the big issues.

The latter point has gotten picked up by the media, because it is so obviously bizarre that EPA is reporting no progress on the only real reason for conducting the report!

But, the media got that story very wrong because they did not distinguish between the progress report and the final report. This makes it seem like the drinking water issue is not being addressed at all, instead of being addressed the wrong way (i.e. study methodology)

The media also is missing the real issues about “the wrong way”, in their rush to condemn EPA for admitting that the progress report “does not draw conclusions about the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources.”

So, before I talk about the more important issue regarding the scope of the study, let’s talk about point #2.

While I knew that EPA had failed a basic test and made no real progress, I was shocked by the reason why EPA failed.

This is tricky, because the issues are complex and the technical issues of statistical projection, field data versus computer modeling, and the scope of work are all jumbled together.

According to the Wall Street Journal story, EPA can’t report progress because they can’t find a drilling company to work with: EPA fracking study may dodge some tough questions

The EPA had planned to do both computer simulations of water contamination and actual field tests at drilling sites. But the agency hasn’t found a drilling company to partner with to test groundwater around a drilling site. That leaves the computer simulations. But the EPA said those won’t be able to address the likelihood of contamination “occurring during actual field operations.”

“In its inability to find a single company willing to test water quality before and after drilling and fracking, the EPA is being thwarted in perhaps the most important part of its study of fracking’s impacts,” Earthworks said in a statement.

The field data versus modeling issue is key and it is being frustrated by EPA’s study approach, which is to rely on industry partnerships.

This raised the far more important issue of industry role in EPA science.

  • Industry role in EPA science

Here is EPA’s charge from Congress:

The conferees urge the agency to carry out a study on the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water, using a credible approach that relies on the best available science, as well as independent sources of information. The conferees expect the study to be conducted through a transparent, peer-reviewed process that will ensure the validity and accuracy of the data. The Agency shall consult with other federal agencies as well as appropriate state and interstate regulatory agencies in carrying out the study, which should be prepared in accordance with the agency’s quality assurance principles.

First of all, Congress directed EPA to work with other federal and state regulatory agencies. Congress said nothing about a role for  industry – Congress said nothing about any EPA industry partnership.

Yet, EPA is stressing an industry partnership relationship and has structured the study in a way that depends on reliance on industry data and industry cooperation.

The EPA continues to work with industry partners to begin research activities at potential prospective case study locations, which involve sites where the research will begin before well construction. This will allow the EPA to collect baseline water quality data in the area. …

The EPA is committed to conducting a study that uses the best available science, independent sources of information, and a transparent, peer-reviewed process that will ensure the validity and accuracy of the results. The agency is working in consultation with other federal agencies, state and interstate regulatory agencies, industry, non-governmental organizations, and others in the private and public sector (sic). …

The EPA continues to work with industry partners to design and develop prospective case studies. Because prospective case studies remain in their early stages, the progress report focuses on the retrospective case studies only.

Environmental groups can not compete with the energy industry’s science.

By holding a few staekholder meetings with environmental groups and public scoping sessions, EPA has opened the door to wholesale control of the content of the study.

EPA should be doing the work, hiring contractors, and collecting new field data.

Instead, EPA is relying on industry data.

Worse, EPA is relying on the captured State pro-energy development bureaucracies that have failed to properly regulate the energy industry. The mission of those organizations is to promote energy development – protection of the environment is a secondary or tertiary role. Furthermore, those state agencies lack the resources to properly monitor and regulate the gas industry, even if they intended to do so.

Industry has argued that State regulatory oversight is adequate. But State level regulatory failure is clearly part of the problem.

It is not appropriate for EPA to rely on industry and pro-energy development State agencies.

That fails Congress’ demand that EPA use  a “credible approach” based on “independent data” . It also fails EPA’s own basic tests of independent data and scientific integrity.

  •  Scope of the Study

Congress recommended that the scope of the study in their charge that EPA carry out a study on the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water,”

But in establishing that narrow charge, Congress did not prohibit or restict EPA’s own scientific initiative and scientific judgement (besides not being legally bound by this specific charge of Congress on fracking and drinking water, EPA does not need Congress to act to study a problem).

EPA could follow the science and the data and scope the study based on a comprehensive set of potential impacts.

That narrow approach to the EPA study clearly contradicts the approach to deregulation of fracking. Haliburton sought the broadest possible set of exemptions from federal law – and Congress played right along

EPA chose to accept Congress’ narrow scope and did not use basic scientific integrity to scope the study. Instead, EPA followed the political winds from Congress and narrowly tailor the study to just drinking water.

EPA did just the opposite in the industry partnership approach – they broadened the scope of and flat out ignored Congress’s narrow charge to consult with regulatory agencies and rely on independent data.

EPA knows better and could never get away with that in scoping an Environmental Impact Statement under NEPA.

We expect a whitewash when the study finally gets completed, which should take many years, a period of time when the gas industry will continue to create “facts on the ground” that guarantee irreversible impacts from fracking.

(Just consider: how many thousands of new wells drilled, permits issued, and contracts executed will come before that EPA study is complete? Then add 4 more years for rule making! The game is rigged, folks.)

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