EPA Advisors Contradict Themselves on Landmark Fracking Study
The hydraulic fracturing panel of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Science Advisory Board (SAB) recently released its draft recommendations on EPA’s landmark draft assessment of hydraulic fracturing and groundwater. In the document, the SAB suggests that the agency change the language of its primary finding that hydraulic fracturing has “not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources” as well as a number of its top line findings. But not once in the over-100 page document, does SAB provide any evidence to support its request.
Even more confounding is that the SAB seems to contradict itself at every turn, which raises a lot of questions about how thorough of a review SAB actually did.
With the teleconference on the SAB’s draft recommendations coming up early next week, Energy In Depth has laid out the top six contradictions and inconsistencies we found in the text:
#1: Using ‘outliers’ to demand ‘systemic’ changes
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 is asking EPA to alter scientific findings based on what they admit are “outliers.” By definition, an “outlier” is neither widespread nor systemic.
#2: Admit ‘infrequent’ impacts, yet want EPA’s similar finding changed
The SAB states,
“Page ES-6, lines 20-21: ‘The number of identified cases, however, was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.’ The descriptor ‘small’ is vague and subjective. The agency should quantify this statement based on the available data, and acknowledge the uncertainty in the estimates.”
SAB takes issue with the descriptor “small” yet admits that impacts happen “infrequently”:
“Furthermore, the EPA should provide more emphasis in the Executive Summary on the importance of local hydraulic fracturing impacts. These local-level hydraulic fracturing impacts may occur in infrequently, but they can be severe and the Executive Summary should more clearly describe such impacts.” (emphasis added)
If SAB is admitting impacts are “infrequent,” that’s not any different from EPA’s characterization of the number of cases being “small.”
#3: Claim EPA should change spill finding because it has not provided “evidence of absence of impact”
On spills, the SAB has this to say:
“The EPA’s major finding and conclusion described in Section 5.10.1 of the draft Assessment Report that there were ‘no documented impacts to groundwater’ for the 497 spills evaluated by the EPA, and in Section 10.1.2., on page 10-8, and on page ES-13, where the EPA notes that “None of the spills of hydraulic fracturing fluid were reported to have reached ground water,” is not supported by the information and data presented in the draft Assessment Report, due to the EPA’s incomplete assessment of spilled liquids and consequences. The SAB is concerned that this major finding is supported only by an absence of evidence rather than by evidence of absence of impact.” (emphasis added)
We’re not exactly sure how one provides “evidence of absence of impact.” But if there’s an absence of evidence of impact, doesn’t that mean that impacts are not widespread or systemic?
#4: Demand EPA emphasize “long-distance travel incidents” after admitting they are “rare”
In the flowback section of the report, SAB states that EPA should include “long-distance travel incidents” of contaminates to drinking water resources even though such incidents are exceedingly “rare”:
“In fact, researchers have identified some cases where compounds (both tracers intentionally spilled on the land surface for research (Brantley et al., 2014) and contaminants unintentionally spilled on the land surface or leaked from a borehole (Sloto et al., 2013; Llewellyn et al., 2015) entered fractures and moved several kilometers into aquifers. While such long-distance travel incidents have only been rarely reported (Vidic et al., 2013; Llewellyn et al., 2015), the draft Assessment Report should describe the frequency and severity of such events and recognize that such events occur.” (emphasis added)
“Thus, the draft Assessment Report should clarify that long-distance travel of hydraulic fracturing constituents is possible, has been reported in the published literature though rarely, and can usually prevented with adequate management practices.” (emphasis added)
One of the rare reports SAB quotes is a study led by Garth Llewellyn, which SAB cites no less than eight times throughout the recommendations. But this study is deeply flawed: in it the researchers argue that contaminates from natural gas wells several miles away seeped into a landowner’s drinking water well. However, they based their argument almost entirely on the detection of a trace concentration of the compound 2-BE in replacement wells they were collecting samples from. 2-BE can be found in hundreds if not thousands of household products, including things as common as Windex and cosmetics. Notably, 2-BE is also found in Type I/II Portland cement, which is used in water and monitoring well construction – and was specifically used in the construction of these replacement wells.
In fact, if talk of 2-BE sounds familiar that’s because in 2011, EPA seized on a “hit” of 2-BE as potential evidence that hydraulic fracturing had impacted water quality in Wyoming, only to be forced later to disavow the report and exit from the case entirely. Later, regulators determined that the contamination was likely a false-positive detection of 2-BE and glycols, traced to the materials EPA used to construct the monitoring wells. Meanwhile, the Wyoming DEP just released the results of its 30-month investigation into water contamination in Pavillion, Wyoming: the agency concluded that hydraulic fracturing is “unlikely” to have been the cause.
This all leads to the question: which is more likely? Is it more likely that a contaminant originating from the cement used to build the actual well was detected by these researchers? Or is it more likely that the compound detected migrated through miles of solid rock to contaminate the water in the well?
But most importantly: if the SAB had to stretch that much to focus on a study that has such shaky science, that’s a pretty clear indication that impacts are not widespread or systemic.
#5: Claim top line conclusions are “inconsistent with observations presented in the body of the report” but fail to demonstrate how
The SAB claims,
“The SAB is concerned that these major findings are presented ambiguously within the Executive Summary and are inconsistent with the observations, data, and levels of uncertainty presented and discussed in the body of the draft Assessment Report.”
But at no point does the SAB demonstrate how the findings are inconsistent with EPA’s observations and data. If SAB is going to criticize EPA for not providing “evidence of absence of impact” shouldn’t SAB have same the obligation to present evidence that EPA’s finding should be changed?
#6: Actually claim the general public can’t understand what “no widespread, systemic impacts” means
It’s difficult to see how anyone could claim that “no widespread, systemic impacts to groundwater resources” isn’t understandable to the general public. Yet SAB states,
“As currently written, the Executive Summary is understandable to technical experts in geoscience and engineering, but will be less clear to a general audience. It is important that the general public be able to understand the Assessment Report and especially the Executive Summary.”
Background on the scope of the study
One of the key passages in the recommendations is where the SAB admits,
“The conclusory discussion in Chapter 6 notes that fractures created during hydraulic fracturing can extend out of the target production zone and upwardly migrate. The EPA should delete these conclusions from the draft Assessment Report unless the EPA supports these statements with data or modeling.” (emphasis added)
In this passage, SAB is clearly stating that there’s no scientific evidence that the fracking process itself has contaminated water, which completely supports EPA’s conclusions.
Of course, the whole debate surrounding “no widespread, systemic impacts” has to do with the widened scope of the study, which encompasses many activities outside of the fracking process – and there’s quite a history behind that decision to expand the scope.
In 2009, when Congress first asked EPA to conduct a national study, it specified that EPA should focus on the relationship between the fracking process itself and drinking water. But as a recent Senate Environment and Public Works report noted, EPA, feeling pressure from anti-fracking groups, greatly expanded the scope of the study to include many activities involving water that support hydraulic fracturing:
“Despite clear Congressional language, EPA tried to alter the mandated scope of its inquiry to seize any potential opportunity to justify a federal regulatory power grab. Emails obtained by the Committee provide evidence of EPA scheming to push the limits of the study’s parameters. In one instance, an email from an EPA official and member of the hydraulic fracturing study steering committee reveals that as of March 11, 2010:
‘[The official] was successful (at least for now) in getting the most expansive scope definition. Still limited to drinking water, but would include the drawdowns of fresh water (surface, ground or utility supplied) used to make-up the frac fluids (2 to 7 million gallons a frac event), the fracturing process itself, and waste management issues like produced water handling, spills, waste pits that might impact surface or ground water sources.’ (emphasis added).
After unilaterally expanding the study, EPA ignored warnings by the Science Advisory Board (SAB) that its scope was too broad, inconsistent, and included aspects not directly related to the hydraulic fracturing process.” (emphasis added)
As a meeting summary from 2010 between EPA and environmental groups explains, 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 did EPA significantly expand the scope to include activities other than fracking, it also significantly expanded definition for what constitutes “drinking water.” From the 2015 draft report:
“Drinking water resources are defined within this report as any body of ground water or surface water that now serves, or in the future could serve, as a source of drinking water for public or private use. This is broader than most federal and state regulatory definitions of drinking water and encompasses both fresh and non-fresh bodies of water.” (ES-3; emphasis added)
Yet even after going above and beyond what they asked – by greatly expanding the scope – activists didn’t get the conclusions they wanted, and since then, they have been exerting a lot of public pressure on SAB to force EPA into revising its key finding, albeit without any evidence.
The bottom line is that 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, and the SAB would certainly be able to cite it in its recommendations as evidence that that findings need to be changed. Instead, the SAB, without any examples to point to, can only produce a document that contradicts itself at every turn.