Advisors Tell EPA to Change ‘Systemic’ Fracking Findings Based on ‘Outliers’

Today the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Science Advisory Board (SAB) released its review of EPA’s landmark report on hydraulic fracturing, which recommends that EPA change the language of its primary finding that hydraulic fracturing has “not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources.”  But a closer look reveals that SAB’s recommendations are completely inconsistent with its mandate, which is to provide objective guidance on scientific matters.

Here are the five quick facts to know about SAB’s claims:

Fact #1: SAB asks EPA to alter scientific findings based on what they admit are “outliers”

What’s particularly revealing is a comment by one SAB member to Bloomberg:

“‘It’s important to characterize and discuss the frequency and severity of outliers that have occurred,’ said panelist Katherine Bennett Ensor, chairwoman of the Rice University Department of Statistics.” (emphasis added)

In other words, SAB members are asking EPA to alter scientific findings based on what they admit are “outliers.” If something is an outlier it is – by definition – not widespread or systemic!

Fact #2: SAB asks EPA to put more weight on Dimock, Pennsylvania; Pavillion, Wyoming; and Parker County, Texas because of how they are “perceived by many members of the public”

The SAB states,

“In this context, the SAB recommends that the agency should include and explain the status, data on potential releases, and findings if available for the EPA and state investigations conducted in Dimock, Pennsylvania, Pavillion, Wyoming, and Parker County, Texas where hydraulic fracturing activities are perceived by many members of the public to have caused significant local impacts to drinking water resources. Examination of these high-visibility cases is important so that the public can understand the status of investigations in these areas, conclusions associated with the investigations, lessons learned for hydraulic fracturing practice if any, plans for remediation if any, and the degree to which information from these case studies can be extrapolated to other locations.” (emphasis added)

In other words, SAB is not asking EPA to include these instances due to facts and evidence, but instead due to public perception.  That’s simply not science.

Fact #3: The Wyoming DEQ just released a report finding it was “unlikely” fracking caused contamination in Pavillion – Dimock and Parker County have also been put to rest

The timing of the previous request is interesting considering the fact that the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) just released the results of its 30-month investigation into water contamination in Pavillion, Wyoming.  The DEQ concluded that hydraulic fracturing is “unlikely” to have been the cause.  As the report explains,

“Evidence suggests that upward gas seepage (or gas charging of shallow sands) was happening naturally before gas well development.

It is unlikely that hydraulic fracturing fluids have risen to shallower depths intercepted by water- supply wellsEvidence does not indicate that hydraulic fracturing fluids have risen to shallow depths intersected by water-supply wells. The likelihood that the hydraulic fracture well stimulation treatments (i.e. often less than 200 barrels) employed in the Pavillion Gas Field have led to fluids interacting with shallow groundwater (i.e. water-supply well depths) is negligible.” (emphasis added)

As EID has noted on many occasions, the case in Pavillion (where poor water quality has been documented since the 1960s) hinged on a single draft EPA report from December 2011, which theorized a link between hydraulic fracturing and water contamination. But EPA’s work was widely criticized by state and federal officials. In fact, in subsequent testing, the USGS had more than 50 separate measurements that differed from EPA’s results. USGS also effectively disqualified one of only two monitoring wells used by EPA, due to low flow rates and poor construction. Further, Don Simpson, then-state director for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), suggested EPA’s testing could have introduced “bias in the samples,” adding that the data “should not be prematurely used as a line of evidence that supports EPA’s suggestion that gas has migrated into the shallow subsurface due to hydraulic fracturing or improper well completion until more data is collected and analyzed.”

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 U.S. 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. The 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 video surfaced 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)

Fact #4: SAB clearly states EPA’s “overall approach” is “appropriate and comprehensive”

It’s worth noting that SAB’s letter explains,

In general, the SAB finds the EPA’s overall approach to assess the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas on drinking water resources, focusing on the individual stages in the HFWC, to be appropriate and comprehensive. The SAB also finds that the agency provided a generally comprehensive overview of the available literature that describes the factors affecting the relationship of hydraulic fracturing and drinking water, and adequately described the findings of such published data in the draft Assessment Report.”

How can SAB argue that EPA’s conclusion needs to be altered when it admits that EPA’s “overall approach” is “appropriate and comprehensive”?

Fact #5: There is nothing “ambiguous” about EPA’s finding of “no widespread, systemic impacts” to groundwater

SAB claims that EPA’s primary finding is “ambiguous and requires clarification and additional explanation.”

EPA’s use of the terms “systemic,” “widespread” and “impacts” are not ambiguous: EPA’s language accurately reflects the data in the report, which did not show a pervasive or inherent threat of water contamination from fracking.  EPA even offers more clarity, noting that while there were some instances of water impacts (not from the process of hydraulic fracturing itself, but from related activities, such as well casing failures or fluid spills on the surface), the number of these instances “was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.” In other words, EPA is appropriately describing a process that, while not risk free, is not an inherent or pervasive risk to water resources.

Indeed, if there were any evidence to suggest widespread or systemic impacts to drinking water from hydraulic fracturing, it would have been uncovered during the past decade of extensive study of the process, including in EPA’s five year, comprehensive report.  Even if EPA were to change its language, it wouldn’t change those facts.


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