EPA Chief’s “Lack of Data” Comment Not in Line with the Facts

It’s pretty well known at this stage that the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) landmark draft fracking study found, after consulting thousands of research papers and mountains of data over the course of five years, that “hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources.”

That’s why EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy’s claim at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing this week that the agency did not have “significant amounts of data” was curious – and inaccurate – to say the least.

It’s important to note that this claim came up in the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) Hydraulic Fracturing Panel’s review of the study and has been answered. As SAB panel member Walt Hufford explained in his dissenting opinion on SAB’s recommendations to EPA, there’s certainly no lack of data. The data may not have been presented in electronic form, which EPA may have found cumbersome, but the data are readily available nonetheless. From the dissenting opinion:

There is significant data generated and submitted to the various regulatory agencies which have jurisdictional authority over the Hydraulic Fracturing Water Cycle (HFWC) activities.  In many cases, these submittals are not electronic in nature, have voluminous attachments (maps, diagrams, laboratory data, engineering data), and are warehoused in the regulatory agency’s data rooms.  The June 2015 draft EPA report consistently referenced the lack of available data and communicated a sense of uncertainty in their conclusions based on that observation.  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.  Each state has different regulatory reporting requirements which are unique to and meets the needs of those states. Moreover, some regions in a state may have slightly different reporting expectations.  The fact that the EPA found these databases problematic should not be relied on in formulating limitations and uncertainties.  The agency had ample time to work with the regulatory agencies to evaluate the information in the database systems (electronic or paper) in reaching their conclusions.  Further, the public has access to a majority of those database systems.  Under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) the public can request to review any publically held submittal to the regulatory agency.  While some files may not be available for public review for legal reasons (i.e. enforcement actions, litigation, confidential business information), 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)

As EID noted recently, at least two SAB panel members, Dr. Stephen Randtke and Dr. Abby A. Li, said they agreed with Hufford on this point at the March 7 teleconference to discuss their recommendations to EPA.

The EPA spent millions of dollars and five years completing this study, and as EPA’s Thomas Burke said in a press release,

“It is the most complete compilation of scientific data to date, including over 950 sources of information, published papers, numerous technical reports, information from stakeholders and peer-reviewed EPA scientific reports.”

The study text itself explains the sheer breadth of the research that was conducted here:

“The EPA used a broad search strategy to identify approximately 3,700 sources of scientific information that could be applicable to this assessment. This search strategy included both requesting input from scientists, stakeholders, and the public about 1 relevant data and information, and thorough searching of published information and applicable data.” (1-6 to 7)

Study after study – from the Department of Energy to the U.S. Geological Survey, to the Government Accountability Office to Massachusetts Institute of Technology – has agreed with EPA’s draft report finding “hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources.” The massive amount of data points to one conclusion:  EPA’s topline finding is scientifically sound.

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