After a theatrical start to a hearing inside the stuffy walls of the Rayburn House Office Building, witnesses testified today about EPA’s recent draft report on water quality in Pavillion, Wyo. The report, which attempts to link hydraulic fracturing technology to groundwater contamination, has been widely criticized for the poor methodology upon which it is based, as well as obvious errors in sampling and testing procedures that EPA itself now concedes are real. And perhaps worst of all, the EPA hasn’t exactly been receiving requests for transparency with open arms.
The first to testify today was Jim Martin, administrator for EPA’s Region 8 office, who defended the agency’s report but also included an important caveat in his remarks:
We make clear that the causal link [of water contamination] to hydraulic fracturing has not been demonstrated conclusively, and that our analysis is limited to the particular geologic conditions in the Pavillion gas field and should not be assumed to apply to fracturing in other geologic settings.
Immediately following the release of EPA’s draft report, a series of questions began to emerge not just about the report’s finding on hydraulic fracturing, but even the process itself that EPA used to test ground water. Martin’s public admission that no causal link exists between water contamination and hydraulic fracturing followed in the wake of those questions, but was unfortunately made nearly two months after the EPA claimed such a link was “likely.” Martin claimed today, however, that the EPA merely “hypothesized potential pathways.”
Tom Doll from the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission added to the mounting list of questions, accusing the EPA of using a “limited data set” to make “technically inadequate conclusions” in its report. “No data was provided by the EPA for the Pavillion Draft Report showing the producing depth, well construction or producing aquifer isolation,” Doll noted in his prepared remarks. During questioning by the Committee, Doll pointed out that the groundwater that the EPA tested for its report is different from the drinking water used by Pavillion residents, and the methane EPA analyzed was not the same as any potential biogenic methane that could be found in drinking water.
Doll also called into question the EPA’s focus for the report, which began as a means of helping local residents solve problems related to their water quality. “The EPA report does not address the need to solve the landowner’s water supply issues; rather the report only addresses hydraulic fracturing,” Doll added.
In December, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R) wrote to the EPA about the report, saying he was “troubled by the EPA’s dismissal of the practical concerns raised by the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (WOGCC), Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), and Encana related to the nature and the protocols employed in conducting the sampling procedures.” Doll noted at the hearing that the EPA did not reach out to WOGCC as it was preparing its report, a fact that Martin disputed on the basis that EPA had reached out to DEQ. WOGCC regulates oil and gas development in the state.
Kathleen Sgamma of the Western Energy Alliance criticized EPA’s draft report, noting that the industry is justifiably held to extremely high standards and regulators should be held to a similarly high standard in their research and conclusions. “The public trusts EPA to protect the environment, follow the law, and use sound science as the foundation of its regulatory work,” Sgamma said. But, in the case of Pavillion, “EPA’s own data and methods have raised serious questions” about their report and “led to concerns about unscientific methods, and lack of transparency and peer review.”
While the focus of the hearing was on the Pavillion report, the participants also engaged in a broader discussion of natural gas development. Professor Bernard Goldstein of the University of Pittsburgh, whose testimony was “based upon personal discussion” with environmental activist groups, called for a slowdown in development until public health impacts could be determined.
But public data compiled late last year found that key health indicators actually improved across the board in Denton County, Texas – the heart of shale development in the United States. That followed the release of a separate study that found “no significant health risks” associated with developing natural gas from shale.
Goldstein also likened hydraulic fracturing to a “two-ton bomb” and, echoing remarks from Rep. Brad Miller (D-NC), accused the industry of keeping fracturing fluids a secret (Miller’s opening statement included the term “secret sauce” when referencing the additives). Last year the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission established the website Frac Focus, which provides well-by-well information of the additives used during hydraulic fracturing. In the past year, both Texas and Colorado have passed laws that incorporate Frac Focus into their statutory requirements on disclosure (and, of course, EID has also maintained a publicly available list of those chemicals for years).
As today’s testimonies show, EPA’s report on Pavillion continues to spur more questions than answers; not about hydraulic fracturing, but rather about EPA’s own conclusions and methodology. EPA essentially confirmed (by way of omission) that it had not consulted WOGCC for its report, which suggests the EPA either didn’t think to seek adequate guidance, or deliberately ignored a state regulatory body in a report that focused on a process regulated by that body.
And, by making politically charged accusation that hydraulic fracturing “likely” caused water contamination, the EPA has undermined its own credibility with its broader national study on hydraulic fracturing. Will that study suffer from the same systemic and methodological flaws as the Pavillion report? Will the EPA seek proper guidance and provide transparent testing results? Will it contain statements about hydraulic fracturing that are more befitting of a political debate than scientific inquiry? Will the EPA once again have to backpedal from its initial “findings,” as it was forced to do in the hearings today? The fact that those questions even have to be asked, and indeed are being asked, is troubling in and of itself.
Regarding the Pavillion report and the EPA’s credibility on hydraulic fracturing, Doll from the WOGCC perhaps summed it up best. “Based on a limited sampling and an inconclusive data set from Pavillion Wyoming ground water, EPA’s conclusion is now national and international fodder for the hydraulic fracturing debate,” Doll said. “Now the quality of the hydraulic fracturing debate suffers and the EPA’s science itself is questioned.”