This morning, Marketplace and American Public Media (APM) published what was meant to be a hit piece entitled, “EPA’s late changes to fracking study downplay risk of drinking water pollution,” but in reality, the article has the distinction of being the most ridiculous attempt yet to manufacture controversy over the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) draft groundwater report.
Before we get into why, it’s worth pointing out that APM has received tens of thousands of dollars from the anti-fracking Park Foundation and APM and Marketplace were awarded millions in grants by the anti-fracking Tides Foundation, specifically to create a program on “global sustainability and the economy.” From that press release:
The grant will primarily support the creation of a new desk for American Public Media’s Marketplace business programs, including Marketplace™, Marketplace Morning Report™, and Marketplace Money™, a personal finance program.
The article tries to argue that EPA made “critical changes” to its Executive Summary by including a “late” addition of the phrase, no “widespread, systemic impacts” to groundwater resources. The authors show that exact phrase does not appear in the draft Executive Summary that was circulated on April 24, 2015. APM/Marketplace would like readers to think there’s something fishy there, except for the minor fact that the April 24, 2015 draft Executive Summary clearly states: “Despite these risks, the number of documented impacts is quite low.” So how is that any different from saying the impacts aren’t widespread or systemic?
Not only that, but the phrase “Agency identified small number of documented impacts relative to number of fracked wells” appears prominently in the subtitle of the draft press release written before June 3 as the below image shows. In the final press release, the subtitle clearly states that the report “identifies important vulnerabilities to drinking water resources.”
In other words, none of the meaning was changed at any stage in the process. All the draft Executive Summaries and press releases contain the two primary elements that appeared in the final materials: EPA found some instances where groundwater was affected by oil and gas development, but the data show it was a “small number of documented impacts relative to number of fracked wells.” The data are what the data are, and they abundantly show the impacts were not widespread or systemic.
Interviews well-known anti-fracking researchers
The APM/Marketplace article goes on to interview a number of anti-fracking researchers, including former EPA scientist Dominic DiGiulio, who was involved in the agency’s famously botched groundwater study in Pavillion, Wyoming. They also interview Robert Jackson, who published studies in 2010 and 2013 claiming fracking could have contaminated groundwater, which have been debunked by the USGS, Syracuse University and other reputable research organizations.
The article claims that “DiGiulio, after leaving his job as an EPA scientist, joined Jackson in a research project at Stanford that found fracking had a ‘clear impact’ on drinking water in Pavillion, Wy.” But what APM/Marketplace does not mention is the fact that EPA’s Pavillion report received wide criticism from state environmental regulators and even other federal agencies – namely the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Land Management due to pair of water-quality monitoring wells that were drilled by 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 the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. Earlier this month, the DEQ released the final report, which finds “Evidence does not indicate that hydraulic fracturing fluids have risen to shallow depths utilized by water-supply wells” and “it is unlikely that hydraulic fracturing has caused any impacts to the water-supply wells.” With his previous work completely debunked, DiGuilio teamed up with Jackson to repackage and re-release that old, debunked data from EPA’s previous Pavillion report. But that attempt fell pretty flat considering it was abundantly clear fracking was not to blame.
Actually suggests that EPA is doing industry’s bidding
APM/Marketplace also quotes DiGiulio actually suggesting that EPA crafted that topline finding to please oil and gas producers. From the article:
“There’s not really a wall between science and politics,” said Dominic DiGiulio, a former EPA scientist. “In my opinion, that statement was put in there to ensure that there would not be blowback from the oil and gas industry.”
The suggestion that EPA would be set on doing industry’s bidding is laughable at best. Remember in May of 2012, the Washington Post editorial board said that the EPA was “earning a reputation for abuse,” primarily due to its attack on the industry and its lackluster handling of fracking issues. That editorial came shortly after the release of a video showing then-EPA Region 6 Administrator, Al Armendariz, explaining that EPA’s philosophy was to “crucify” oil and gas producers – to “hit them as hard as you can” and “make examples of them.”
Far from the claims of industry supposedly calling the shots, there is a well-documented history of influence from anti-fossil fuel groups within the EPA. As the New York Times reported in 2014, the NRDC has been working hand in glove with EPA to write some of the most expansive environmental regulations in U.S. history. As E&E News reported in 2013, “it would be hard to find a group with more connections in state or federal agencies than NRDC.” The EPA has been known to have what the Times Picayune called a “cozy relationship” with other activist groups like the Bucket Brigade, which played a starring role in the dubious scientific case against fracking in New York. They also have come to the aid of Keystone XL and Pebble mine opponents.
In fact, EPA granted anti-fracking activists’ wishes by significantly expanding the scope of its groundwater study to include processes and procedures used in oil and gas development that have nothing to do with fracking at all. As a meeting summary from 2010 between EPA and environmental groups shows, anti-fracking groups
“expressed concern that the study will not include all aspects of the HF and natural gas extraction process. EPA will use a lifecycle framework to organize the study. While a complete mass balance will most likely be beyond the scope of the study, EPA is currently planning to consider all stages of HF activities, including initial water withdrawals and waste storage and disposal.”
Not only that but EPA also used a significantly expanded definition for what constitutes “drinking water” making it “broader than most federal and state regulatory definitions” and including “non-fresh bodies of water.” Yet even with the expanded definition of fracking and drinking water, EPA still found the number of impacts to groundwater was “small.”
To its credit, APM and Marketplace do mention the economic boon from oil and gas development in shale areas, quoting a Dimock, Pa. homeowner who said, “We’ve had a shot in the arm. It’s probably the best thing that’s happened to this community in 50 years.”
Nevertheless, their failure to disclose their anti-fracking foundation funding, as well as their attempt to manufacture a headline suggesting that EPA made a “critical change” – when all the draft summaries and press releases include exactly the same sentiments that appeared in the final versions – is simply ridiculous, not to mention entirely misleading for their readers.