Science Advisors Uphold EPA’s Topline Conclusion of “No Widespread, Systemic Impacts”
by Katie Brown, Energy in Depth
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At long last, the Hydraulic Fracturing Panel of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Science Advisory Board (SAB) has released its final recommendations on EPA’s landmark groundwater study, and 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 that conclusion. From the recommendations,
“EPA should provide quantitative analysis that supports its conclusion that hydraulic fracturing has not led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources. Twentysix of the 30 members of the SAB Panel concluded that the statement also requires clarification and additional explanation…” (emphasis added)
Here are the most important things to know as you read through the recommendations:
Fact #1: Quantitative analyses have clearly shown no widespread, systemic impacts
Studies that have looked at the numbers of well failures or water impacts that have occurred as oil and natural gas has skyrocketed across the country have shown that these instances are exceedingly rare.
In fact, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has just released its2015 Oil and Gas Annual Report, which found zero confirmed cases of stray gas migration into water resources in 2015. Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider that Pennsylvania produced a record 4.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in 2015 alone, which is nearly five times what it produced in 2011. Not only that, but DEP more than doubled its well site inspections from over 14,650 in 2009 to more than 34,600 in 2015.
The latest data show negligible impacts, but even before states implemented new well casing regulations, the number of well integrity failures (which doesn’t necessarily mean water was impacted) comes out to only a fraction of one percent of all wells drilled in a given state.
In January 2014, the Associated Press completed an investigation using Pa. DEP data, which found a well failure rate in Pennsylvania of only about one-third of one percent (0.33 percent) of all the oil and natural gas wells drilled in the state from 2005 to 2013.
In 2011, the Ground Water Protection Council looked at more than 34,000 wells drilled in Ohio from 1983 to 2007 and more than 187,000 wells drilled in Texas between 1993 and 2008. The GWPC found a well failure rate of just 0.03 percent in Ohio and only about 0.01 percent in Texas.
In other words, quantitative studies have shown that impacts are not widespread or systemic.
Fact #2: Several panel members expressed strong support for an opinion that EPA’s topline finding is “accurate, unambiguous”
As EID has noted before, the SAB recommendations include an opinion authored by panel member Walt Hufford, who is joined by three other panel colleagues: Dr. Stephen W. Almond, Dr. Shari Dunn-Norman, and John V. Fontana. The dissenting opinion clearly states,
“The statement by the EPA in the draft Assessment Report issued in June, 2015 is clear, unambiguous, concise, and does not need to be changed or modified….The major conclusion by EPA in their June 2015 draft Assessment Report stating “no widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the Unites States” is accurate, unambiguous, and supportable with the facts EPA has reviewed.”
During one of the teleconferences to discuss the recommendations, several members of the SABvoiced their support for the dissenting opinion and for EPA’s topline finding. As Dr. Shari Dunn-Norman explained,
“I’ve been giving this a lot of thought […] of Walt’s opinion and I would like to support his opinion completely…in my experience we did massive hydraulic fracturing back in the 1970s and 1980s and we just didn’t see major problems. And if there were really some very big issues with this, we would probably have seen them by now.”
Dr. Stephen W. Almond agreed noting,
“I want to just join in with Shari. I don’t want to sound like we’re singing kumbaya but I’ve fractured all over the world been on literally thousands of frack jobs and I have to agree that I don’t see any widespread risk of any of the areas […]I’d just have to agree with that number one statement that Shari gave just from experience fracturing all over the world and not to say there’s not some cases that may need to be investigated like Dimock and Pavillion, etc., but overall I don’t see a widespread systemic issue here.”
During one of the teleconferences, Dr. Stephen Randtke and Dean Malouta said that they were considering joining the dissenting opinion. Although neither ended up doing so, Randtke said during the teleconference that he agrees with EPA’s topline finding as it stands in the draft groundwater report:
“As I said back in October when you read this entire three paragraph introduction on page ES-6 on the major findings I have really no trouble with it. And so I’m sympathetic to Walt’s statement […] I agree with kind of the whole statement as EPA has stated it. I think it’s a very good one.” (emphasis added)
Fact #3: Study after study has come to EPA’s same conclusion that impacts are not widespread or systemic
EPA’s findings are right in line with what scientists have repeatedly concluded in peer-reviewed research. Studies by the University of Cincinnati, U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Government Accountability Office, the Groundwater Protection Council, California Council on Science and Technology, and the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, as well as studies by numerous universities, such as MIT, University of Texas at Austin, and Yale (just to name a few) have come to exactly the same conclusion.
Not once, in at least four drafts of recommendations, has the SAB Panel pointed to any evidence that would contradict EPA’s topline finding of “no widespread, systemic impacts” to drinking water resources. Without that evidence, SAB can only conclude that EPA’s topline finding is sound.
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