EPA Set to Release Final Report on Fracking and Groundwater: Four Things to Know

by Katie Brown, Energy in Depth

Just before the Thanksgiving break, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy gave a speech at the National Press Club explaining what the agency hopes to accomplish in the last few months of the Obama administration. During the question and answer session, McCarthy mentioned that the agency’s finalized groundwater study will be coming out “soon.”
McCarthy’s comments come just after Catalyst Environmental Solutions released a new report finding EPA’s topline conclusion – that “hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources” – is the product of sound science. As the report explains, “if a significant correlation between impaired drinking water resources and hydraulic fracturing existed, EPA would have identified it; however, the results did not support this finding.
Administrator McCarthy alluded to the EPA Science Advisory Board’s (SAB) recommendations on the groundwater report, which suggested EPA provide more details on how it came to its topline finding, but did not ask the agency to change it, despite the way anti-fracking activists may have characterized it. When speaking about the SAB document, McCarthy made a few comments that require a bit of fact checking and clarification.
#1. There’s no lack of data
McCarthy said at the event,
“And so, the challenge for us is to characterize what we know and to make sure that that’s not over-characterized as we know everything because our data is limited, and how we project that and clarify that in this report is what we’re going to accomplish.”
This claim that the “data is limited” has been thoroughly debunked in a dissenting opinion on SAB’s first draft recommendations to EPA, authored by SAB panel member Walt Hufford. As Hufford states, the data may not have been presented in electronic form, which EPA may have found cumbersome, but there was a wealth of data readily available and accessible to the agency nonetheless. From the dissenting opinion:
“There is significant data generated and submitted to the various regulatory agencies which have jurisdictional authority over the Hydraulic Fracturing Water Cycle (HFWC) activities.  In many cases, these submittals are not electronic in nature, have voluminous attachments (maps, diagrams, laboratory data, engineering data), and are warehoused in the regulatory agency’s data rooms.  The June 2015 draft EPA report consistently referenced the lack of available data and communicated a sense of uncertainty in their conclusions based on that observation.  Factually, the data exist and are available for review.  The EPA may have found the datasets problematic (from a user point of view), given that many regulatory programs are not digitized or electronic in nature and cannot accept electronic submittals.  Each state has different regulatory reporting requirements which are unique to and meets the needs of those states. Moreover, some regions in a state may have slightly different reporting expectations.  The fact that the EPA found these databases problematic should not be relied on in formulating limitations and uncertainties.  The agency had ample time to work with the regulatory agencies to evaluate the information in the database systems (electronic or paper) in reaching their conclusions.  Further, the public has access to a majority of those database systems.  Under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) the public can request to review any publically held submittal to the regulatory agency.  While some files may not be available for public review for legal reasons (i.e. enforcement actions, litigation, confidential business information), the amount of information available associated with HFWC is extensive.  Any suggestion that data is generally unavailable or insufficient leads to misconceptions that the data does not exist.” (emphasis added)
To suggest that the report is not comprehensive or suffers from a “lack of data” is not only inaccurate due to the wealth of information available; it also contradicts what EPA said when the draft report was released last summer.  As EPA’s Thomas Burke said in a press release,
“It is the most complete compilation of scientific data to date, including over 950 sources of information, published papers, numerous technical reports, information from stakeholders and peer-reviewed EPA scientific reports.”
The study text itself explains the sheer breadth of the research that was conducted:
“The EPA used a broad search strategy to identify approximately 3,700 sources of scientific information that could be applicable to this assessment. This search strategy included both requesting input from scientists, stakeholders, and the public about relevant data and information, and thorough searching of published information and applicable data.”
Not to mention the fact that the report took no less than 5 years to complete!
#2. EPA’s science advisors have asked EPA to prove a negative
Administrator McCarthy also claimed that “we needed to do a better job at explaining the science” likely again alluding to SAB’s recommendations to provide more details.
First, there’s is nothing ambiguous about EPA’s finding. The terms “widespread” and “systemic” are clearly defined and unequivocal. EPA further explained what it meant by that characterization when it said that the number of identified cases where groundwater may have been affected by oil and gas development “was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.” That really couldn’t be clearer.
What SAB is actually asking EPA to do is to prove that there aren’t widespread, systemic impacts to groundwater from hydraulic fracturing – to prove a negative. The section of the recommendations that best illustrates this occurs when the SAB requests that EPA alter its finding that fracturing fluid spills haven’t impacted groundwater because “this major finding is supported only by an absence of evidence rather than by evidence of absence of impact.”
The fact that EPA spent five years gathering data and information, and in that time could find nothing to support widespread or systemic impacts on underground sources of drinking water, is indeed evidence of absence. Importantly, the SAB itself provided no evidence to contradict EPA’s topline finding. If SAB has such evidence, then it should release it for public review. Absent any such evidence, however, SAB’s request makes very little practical sense.
#3. The purpose of the study was to find overall risk – and the data point to only one conclusion: no widespread, systemic impacts
When Congress approved funding for EPA to conduct a study on hydraulic fracturing in 2010, the mandate was as follows:
“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.”
In other words, the purpose of the report was to assess the overall risk. Of course, no one would dispute that in the “small” number of cases where impacts to groundwater have occurred, those impacts would not be positive. But its purpose was not to determine what happens when impacts (rarely) do occur; its purpose was to determine whether impacts are inherent, widespread or systemic to the process of hydraulic fracturing. The data and the science clearly show that they are not.
#4. Pavillion, Parker County and Dimock have long been put to rest with environmental regulators finding no contamination from fracking
Activists have long been petitioning EPA to include Pavillion, Wyoming, Parker County, Texas and Dimock, Pennsylvania in the report, so it’s worth repeating what environmental regulators have determined in these three cases.
The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (WDEQ) just released its final report on groundwater in Pavillion, Wyoming and it found that fracking was not to blame for contamination there. From the DEQ fact sheet:
“Evidence does not indicate that hydraulic fracturing fluids have risen to shallow depths utilized by water-supply wells. Also, based on an evaluation of hydraulic fracturing history, and methods used in the Pavillion Gas Field, it is unlikely that hydraulic fracturing has caused any impacts to the water-supply wells.”
This final report comes after state environmental regulators and even other federal agencies, namely the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Land Management, criticized EPA’s initial report on Pavillion. Those criticisms from state and federal officials focused on a pair of water-quality monitoring wells, drilled by the EPA, which were poorly constructed and likely introduced the very contaminants that some have tried to blame on fracking. Eventually, under the weight of these criticisms, the EPA backed down. The agency never submitted its draft report, released in late 2011, for peer review and handed the Pavillion case back to state regulators.
In the case in Dimock, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) investigated whether oil and natural gas activity was responsible for contamination. To resolve the issue, the DEP ultimately issued a consent decree with the operator, and the agency determined in November 2011 that the operator had fulfilled its obligations under that order. The EPA agreed in late 2011 “The data does not indicate that the well water presents an immediate health threat to users.” Nonetheless, even with no new data in the case, EPA reversed course shortly thereafter and began a high-profile investigation that attracted significant attention from the news media. EPA ultimately released four sets of sampling data, and concluded in July 2012 that “there are not levels of contaminants present that would require additional action by the Agency.”
The Parker County, Texas case made news on December 7, 2010, when then-EPA Region 6 administrator Al Armendariz issued an unprecedented “endangerment order” against Range Resources, alleging that its gas drilling operations had caused methane to enter groundwater. The case had been brought to EPA after video surfaced of a landowner igniting water coming out of a garden hose. However, a district judge later ruled in early 2012 that a consultant named Alisa Rich had convinced the property owner to hook a garden hose up to a gas vent – not the water line – “to provide local and national news media a deceptive video, calculated to alarm the public into believing the water was burning.” The judge also noted: “This demonstration was not done for scientific study.” Rich had advised the property owner to do this because “it is worth every penny if we can get jurisdiction to EPA.” Subsequent scientific testing through nitrogen fingerprinting, however, proved that the methane was naturally occurring (from the shallow Strawn Formation, not the Barnett Shale), and multiple state investigations determined gas drilling was not to blame. A few weeks later, Armendariz was forced to resign after a videosurfaced of him bragging that his method of regulating the oil and gas industry was similar to how the Romans used to “crucify” villagers. With a mountain of scientific evidence showing EPA’s order to be baseless, the EPA withdrew the order in the spring of 2012.
Further, the Railroad Commission of Texas concluded in 2014,
“The occurrence of natural gas in the complainants’ water wells may be attributed to natural migration of gas from the shallow Strawn Formation, exacerbated by water well construction practices whereby some water wells have penetrated ‘red beds’ in the transition interval between the aquifer and the Strawn Formation. Contribution of natural gas to the aquifer by the nearby Barnett Shale gas production wells is not indicated by the physical evidence…” (emphasis added)
EPA’s report is right in line with dozens of reports that have come to the same conclusion.  Researchers at the University of Cincinnati recently took samples before, during and after shale development and found no groundwater contamination from fracking. Studies by the U.S. Geological Survey, the Government Accountability Office, the Groundwater Protection Council,  California Council on Science and Technology, the Department of Energy, as well as studies by numerous universities, such as MITUniversity of Texas at Austin and Yale have found fracking is not a credible threat to drinking water.
At an event hosted by Christian Science Monitor today, McCarthy said about the finalized report, “We’re going to stick with the science.” The data are what the data are and the evidence could not be clearer that fracking has not led to widespread, systemic impacts to groundwater. To come to any other conclusion would be to abandon the science and the facts in favor of a political agenda.
Launched by the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) in 2009, Energy In Depth (EID) is a research, education and public outreach campaign focused on getting the facts out about the promise and potential of responsibly developing America’s onshore energy resource base – especially abundant sources of oil and natural gas from shale and other “tight” formations across the country.
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