Don’t Sweat the Technical – EPA’s SAB Isn’t.

Two weeks from today, EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) Panel will meet “to discuss substantive comments from Panel members on the draft SAB report Review of EPA’s Draft Hydraulic Fracturing Study Plan.” For those of you not familiar with EPA’s HF study, or those looking for a quick refresher, this study dates back to 2009 when Congress passed the FY2010 spending bill instructing EPA to study the relationship between the use of fracturing technology and the safety and quality of underground sources of drinking water. Here’s the report language:

“The conferees urge the EPA 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. The conferees expect the study to be conducted through a transparent, peer-reviewed process that will ensure the validity and accuracy of the data. EPA shall consult with other federal agencies as well as appropriate state and interstate regulatory agencies in carrying out the study, and it should be prepared in accordance with EPA quality assurance principles.”

Pretty clear directive, right? Here’s the good news: The science is about as straightforward as it gets – which is why state regulators and the EPA itself have been forced to admit that not a single case of groundwater contamination has ever been tied to hydraulic fracturing in the more than 60 years it’s been in use. Here, here, here, here (pg. 34) and here are just a few examples of state and federal regulators attesting to the safety of this process.

Back to the SAB meeting scheduled for May 19. While we certainly want to give these folks the benefit of the doubt and wait to hear what they have to say in two weeks, we got our hands on a 70-page discussion draft  that will serve as the basis for the SAB’s upcoming public meeting. And so we decided to take a look – here’s a quick look at what we found.

Righgt out of the gate, to SAB’s credit, the panel references actual field data collected from the Barnett and Marcellus formations by Pinnacle Technologies that clearly demonstrates the thousands of feet of separation that exist between the deepest fresh water aquifers and individual fractures. EID highlighted this research back in August 2010. So it’s nice to see that in there.

Another solid recommendation found in the document is the SAB’s insistence that experts with experience in well construction and fracturing operations be included on the final panel. To wit:

“While EPA has extensive expertise and the timeline is short on this study, the SAB recommends EPA consider expanding the research team to include researchers with experience in this area of investigation (especially those with experience in well construction and fracturing operations).” (SAB Review of EPA’s Draft HF Study Plan, pg. 30)

While the SAB is comprised of individuals with varying backgrounds and interests, the purpose of this study, as dictated by Congress, is to execute a technical review of hydraulic fracturing and its potential impact on drinking water. But looking through the actual document, you don’t find a whole lot of technical analysis. Don’t find a whole lot on the technologies in place that ensure drinking water is protected at each and every stage of the process. What you do find, however, is a lot of talk about non-technical things – a lots of references to lots of terms that have nothing to do with the mandate of this panel. Here’s how many times the following words appear in the text:

Wellbore (0); Regulations (0); Annulus (0); Background (0); Migration (0); Biogenic Methane (0); Containment Technologies (1); Casing (3); Pressure (4); Completion (4); Natural gas (7); Cement (9); Environmental Justice (12); Toxic (74)

Again, this is a technical review of hydraulic fracturing – one that’s designed to review the well completion process and determine what, if any potential impacts the fracturing process has on fresh water aquifers and private water wells. Let’s stick to the science and technical aspects of the fracturing process. So long as that’s the approach, it’s one we will continue to support. But it doesn’t appear to be an approach that’s been followed right now.

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