SAB Member: EPA’s Topline Finding in Groundwater Study is “Accurate, Unambiguous”

As Bloomberg reported this week, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Science Advisory Board (SAB) published a dissenting opinion written by a member of the SAB Hydraulic Fracturing Panel, Walt Hufford.  The dissenting opinion was completed in response to SAB’s two draft recommendations on EPA’s landmark draft groundwater report, in which SAB asks EPA to modify its topline finding of “no widespread, systemic impacts” to groundwater resources. But, as Mr. Hufford explains in his dissenting opinion, EPA’s major conclusion is scientifically sound and does not need to be changed:

“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 statement provides a “holistic” conclusion of the life cycle process of water used by the industry. While the report could have articulated the agency’s statistical assessment more clearly, there has not been any facts or evidence demonstrating a systemic or widespread impact to existing drinking water resources or other water resources that may not meet the current criteria of a drinking water resource.  If a systemic or widespread issue had been identified, the EPA and the state regulatory agencies would have quickly responded to such findings.  In the absence of such documented events, the conclusion is clear that no systemic, widespread impact to drinking water resources is occurring.  To suggest otherwise, undercuts the work and dedication by the employees of those federal and state agencies who are charged with environmental protection.  The draft EPA reports estimates approximately 30,000 wells are drilled each year in the Unites States.  Only a very small percentage of those wells have had an operational issue that may have impacted drinking water resources.  Even among this small percentage, the identified impacts to drinking water resources have primarily been associated with surface spills, well construction, and well cementing – not hydraulic fracturing.

The SAB panel is correct in highlighting that localized impacts should not be discounted nor marginalized.  Moreover, the SAB correctly identified that an aspect of the draft Assessment Report dealing with the actual “impact” of a spill requires further clarification.  A casual reader of the draft report is left to question if impacts from all spills or releases are permanent or temporary.  The agency should expand the discussion around the actual timing of “impacts” to the local environment.  In many cases, including the ones referenced within the report, it is clear there is no long term demonstrated impact associated with a release.  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.” (emphasis added)

This opinion is one of four dissenting opinions Mr. Hufford offers in his document.  He also provides three recommendations for the EPA.

Mr. Hufford’s dissenting opinion agrees not only with the EPA, but also with numerous studies that have also found no widespread, systemic impacts from hydraulic fracturing.  Just to name a few of these:

  • University of Cincinnati (2016): This ongoing study has found that water quality has not been impacted by natural gas drilling, or fracking. While the study itself has not yet been released, at a Feb. 4 Carroll County Concerned Citizens meeting, the study’s head researcher, University of Cincinnati Assistant Professor Amy Townsend-Small, explained the results this way: “The good news is that our study did not document that fracking was directly linked to water contamination.” Townsend-Small also said, samples that were high in methane “clearly did not have a natural gas source.”  She also said, “There was no significant change in methane concentration over time, even as more and more natural gas wells were drilled in the area.”
    Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) (2016): Geologists used computer simulations to study what would happen to frack fluids when injected into the bedrock of the North German basin and found “… that the injected fluids did not move upwards into layers carrying drinking-water.”
    • Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (2016): This 30-month investigation into water contamination in Pavillion concluded it is “unlikely that hydraulic fracturing fluids have risen to shallower depths intercepted by water-supply wells.” And that “Evidence does not indicate that hydraulic fracturing fluids have risen to shallow depths intersected by water-supply wells.”
    • Bureau of Economic Geology, University of Texas at Austin (2016): This study of 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.
    • Drollette et al. (2015): This study found no indication of contamination from the fracking process itself. As the researchers explain, “We found no evidence for direct communication with shallow drinking water wells due to upward migration form shale horizons.”
    • Jackson et al. (2015): The researchers of this study found no evidence of hydraulic fracturing contaminating water. According the report’s press release, “Using innovative techniques such as isotopic ‘tracer’ compounds that distinguish the source of chemicals in well water, Jackson has not found evidence that frack water contaminants seep upward to drinking-water aquifers from deep underground.”
    • California Council on Science and Technology and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (2015): This peer-reviewed independent study concluded: “We found no documented instances of hydraulic fracturing or acid stimulations directly causing groundwater contamination in California.”
    • Siegel et al., Environmental Science and Technology (2015): This peer-reviewed study by researchers at Syracuse University looks at thousands of randomly selected baseline samples from water wells throughout Pennsylvania and concludes: “there is no significant correlation between dissolved methane concentrations in groundwater and proximity to nearby oil/gas wells.”
    • U.S. Department of Energy’s National Technology Laboratory (2014): In this study, which the Associated Press called a “landmark study,” NETL researchers injected tracers into the hydraulic fracturing fluid in a well in Greene County, Pennsylvania to track for any signs of possible migration. After twelve months of monitoring, the researchers found no signs of this happening. Here’s what the report concluded: “Current findings are: 1) no evidence of gas migration from the Marcellus Shale; and 2) no evidence of brine migration from the Marcellus Shale.”
    • Kresse et al., USGS Scientific Investigations Report (2013): This USGS study examined the water quality of 127 shallow domestic wells in the Fayetteville Shale and found no evidence of contamination: “This new study is important in terms of finding no significant effects on groundwater quality from shale gas development within the area of sampling.”
    • Flewelling et al., Groundwater and Geophysical Research Letters (2013): Researchers at Gradient released two peer-reviewed studies finding no impacts from shale development. The first study explained that “Overall, the rapid upward migration scenarios that have been recently suggested (Rozell and Reaven 2012; Myers 2012; Warner et al. 2012) are not physically plausible.” In a second paper, Gradient’s team found, “It is not physically plausible for induced fractures to create a hydraulic connection between deep black shale and other tight formations to overlying potable aquifers, based on the limited amount of height growth at depth and the rotation of the least principal stress to the vertical direction at shallow depths.”
    • Molofsky et al., Groundwater (2013): This study tested 1,701 water wells in northeastern Pennsylvania and found that “methane is ubiquitous in groundwater indicating that, on a regional scale, methane concentrations are not correlated to shale-gas extraction.”
    • U.S. Govt. Accountability Office (2012): The U.S. GAO consulted regulatory officials in eight states who explained, based on their own state investigations, that “the hydraulic fracturing process has not been identified as a cause of groundwater contamination within their states.”
    Cardno Entrix (2012): This study, focusing on water wells in the Inglewood, Calif., oil field concluded, “Before-and-after monitoring of groundwater quality in monitor wells did not show impacts from high-volume hydraulic fracturing and high-rate gravel packing.”
    • Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative (2010): This study concludes, “[B]ased on over sixty years of practical application and a lack of evidence to the contrary, there is nothing to indicate that when coupled with appropriate well construction; the practice of hydraulic fracturing in deep formations endangers ground water. There is also a lack of demonstrated evidence that hydraulic fracturing conducted in many shallower formations presents a substantial risk of endangerment to ground water.”

Following on this large body of research, EPA’s study, which took five years to complete, is by far the most thorough report ever to be done on hydraulic fracturing. The science pointing to “no widespread, systemic impacts” is overwhelming.  Meanwhile, not once in the over 100 pages of recommendations does the SAB point to any evidence that contradicts EPA’s finding that hydraulic fracturing has “not led to widespread, systemic impacts” on drinking water sources.

Going forward, the SAB should maintain its role as a scientific body and base its recommendations on the science and the facts.


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