UPDATE (12/13/16, 3:43 EST) In yet another sign EPA’s word changing in its final groundwater report was driven by politics rather than science, EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator Thomas Burke admitted when pressed by Wall Street Journal reporter Amy Harder that documented number of cases of water contamination from fracking-related activities is indeed small — even though language from the draft report stating cases of contamination “were small compared to the large number” of fracked wells was taken out of the final report. From the Wall Street Journal,
When asked, Mr. Burke did reiterate the report’s earlier findings that the EPA found only a small number of cases of contamination but stressed the lack of data.
“While the number of identified cases of drinking water contamination is small, the scientific evidence is insufficient to support estimates of the frequency of contamination,” Burke told the Wall Street Journal. “Scientists involved with finalizing the assessment specifically identified this uncertainty in the report.” (emphasis added)
Of course, there’s absolutely no difference between saying the “number of identified cases of drinking water contamination is small” and there are “no widespread, systemic impacts.”
— Original Post December 13, 2016 —
Today, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the final results of its long awaited groundwater study. While the agency made some wording changes to its previous topline finding, the data have not changed. This study took five years to complete, and in that time EPA found nothing to suggest that fracking is a serious risk to groundwater. Because of this, the report only reinforces what EPA found previously – that “hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources.”
If fracking were a major threat to drinking water supplies, the data gathered by EPA would show it – but they don’t. If fracking were contaminating water on a widespread level, the evidence would also have been found in the dozens and dozens of peer-reviewed studies that have been conducted over the past decade. So perhaps contrary to its intention, EPA’s study officially closes the book on the environmental activists’ deliberate misinformation campaign.
Politics over science — no lack of data
Having said that, it’s clear that EPA did its best to inject politics into this good news by inflating concerns about groundwater, no doubt as a parting thank-you gift to the “Keep It In the Ground” movement. EPA spent five years and at least $33 million in taxpayer dollars on this study, and now after initially claiming in their draft report that they had completed the “most complete compilation of scientific data to date,” they’re saying there are “gaps” in the data that preclude them from making a definitive statement.
If the most comprehensive report to date was unable to find systemic impacts to groundwater that is evidence that there’s an absence of impact to groundwater. Further, the claim that EPA didn’t have access to enough data has been thoroughly debunked in an opinion by Walt Hufford, a member of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, who said,
“There is significant data generated and submitted to the various regulatory agencies which have jurisdictional authority over the Hydraulic Fracturing Water Cycle (HFWC) activities… 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… 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)
Background on Science Advisory Board process – asked EPA to prove a negative
When EPA began this investigation five years ago, activists hoping to capitalize on Josh Fox’s fraudulent flaming hoses, claimed that they were looking forward to the results. In a March 19, 2010 a New York Times article quoted Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) Amy Mall in an article saying,
“We are very pleased that the EPA is responding to families across the country who are concerned that oil and gas development is contaminating their drinking water” and “we eagerly await the results [of the EPA study].” (emphasis added)
After heralding the research at its inception, five years later they completely changed their tune, downplaying the forthcoming report, likely due to what it would conclude. In fact, in a March 2015 InsideClimate News article, Briana Mordick of NRDC said,
“Our expectations are low about getting anything conclusive about whether the risks with fracking are insurmountable or manageable.”
A few months later, EPA released its draft report, which found that impacts to groundwater from fracking were not widespread or systemic. It wasn’t long before Keep-It-In-The-Ground activists like Mark Ruffalo, Josh Fox, and members of Food & Water Watch, NRDC, the Sierra Club, among other groups, launched into outright science denial and began an effort to lobby the agency’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) into pressuring EPA to change its topline finding.
In the months that followed, the SAB held numerous teleconferences and produced several 100-plus page draft recommendations. Yet not one of these drafts provided any shred of evidence to counter EPA’s topline finding. In March, 2016, SAB member Walt Hufford authored an opinion that was included within SAB’s draft recommendations, which 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.”
SAB panel members John V. Fontana and Drs. Stephen W. Almond and Shari Dunn-Norman joined Hufford in the opinion, but they weren’t the only ones who agreed with him. During one of the teleconferences, SAB members 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 and has “no trouble with it.” He went on to say, “I agree with kind of the whole statement as EPA has stated it. I think it’s a very good one.”
SAB member Dr. Abby Li expressed concern that the media and the public may misinterpret the SAB’s draft recommendations as stating that EPA’s topline finding is unsubstantiated, which was not what she believed most members of the SAB were trying to say.
Without evidence to the contrary, the SAB did not ask EPA to change its topline finding. Instead, it made a request that borders on the absurd: it asked the agency to prove that there aren’t widespread, systemic impacts to groundwater from hydraulic fracturing – in other words, to prove a negative. The section of the recommendations that especially illustrates this occurs when the SAB requests 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 to compile the most comprehensive report to date is indeed evidence of absence of impact.
Science overwhelmingly finds no widespread, systemic impacts
EPA’s finalized report comes only a few weeks after the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (WDEQ) closed the books on one of the most high profile contamination cases – Pavillion, Wyoming – finding in its final report that fracking was not to blame:
“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.”
Catalyst Environmental Solutions recently released a new report finding EPA’s topline conclusion in its draft report – 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.”
Researchers at the University of Cincinnati recently took samples before, during and after shale development and found no groundwater contamination from fracking. As lead researchers Amy Townsend Small put it, “There was no significant change in methane concentration over time, even as more and more natural gas wells were drilled in the area.”
In a study by the U.S. Energy Department’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, which the Associated Press called a “landmark study,” researchers injected tracers into the hydraulic fracturing fluid in a well in Greene County, Pa., to track for any signs of possible migration. After 12 months of monitoring, the researchers found “no evidence of gas migration from the Marcellus Shale.”
University of Texas at Austin researchers published a study that looked at 784 freshwater wells in the Barnett, Haynesville, Eagle Ford and Delaware Basin shale plays in Texas found the presence of high dissolved methane concentrations in the wells “are likely natural” and not related to fracking.
A study by California Council on Science and Technology concluded, “We found no documented instances of hydraulic fracturing or acid stimulations directly causing groundwater contamination in California.”
Yale researchers released a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluding, “We found no evidence for direct communication with shallow drinking water wells due to upward migration form shale horizons.”
Studies by the U.S. Geological Survey, the Government Accountability Office, the Groundwater Protection Council, Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources, MIT – and the list goes on and on – have found fracking is not a credible threat to drinking water.
If there were any evidence to suggest widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water from hydraulic fracturing, it would have been uncovered in EPA’s five-year study and during the past decade of extensive research. It most certainly was not and EPA’s report reflects that.
This is last chapter of a long saga, through which anti-fracking activists have persisted in science denial – but the facts and the science are clear, even in this politically charged EPA report.