Science Advisors Affirm EPA Finding of “No Widespread, Systemic Impacts” from Fracking

After months of deliberation, the Hydraulic Fracturing Panel of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Science Advisory Board (SAB) released its “Review of the EPA’s draft Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources” this week, quietly posting it to the website. Anti-fracking activists hoping for a damning review of EPA’s draft fracking report will be very disappointed: it does not ask EPA to modify or eliminate its topline finding of “no widespread, systemic impacts.”

Here’s what you need to know:

Fact #1: SAB affirms EPA’s topline finding of “no widespread, systemic impacts” to groundwater resources

The recommendations state,

“Of particular concern in this regard is the high-level conclusion statement on page ES-6 that ‘We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.’ Most members of the SAB Panel find that this statement does not clearly describe the system(s) of interest (e.g., groundwater, surface water), the scale of impacts (i.e., local or regional), nor the definitions of ‘systemic’ and ‘widespread’. The SAB observes that the statement has been interpreted by readers and members of the public in many different ways. Most members of the SAB Panel conclude that the statement requires clarification and additional explanation (e.g., discuss what is meant by “any observed change” in the definition of “impact” in Appendix J, and consider including modifying adjectives before the words “widespread, systemic impact” in the statement on page ES-6). Four of the 30 members of the Panel have concluded that this statement is clear, concise and accurate.” (emphasis added)

The important point here is that while the SAB panel makes some suggestions to EPA, it is not asking the agency to change the phrase “no widespread, systemic impacts” – it is asking EPA to include modifying adjectives before the words “no widespread, systemic impacts.” In other words, EPA’s topline finding stands; the SAB panel is just asking EPA to provide further details.

The final recommendations are likely a reflection of comments made by panel member Dr. Abby Li at one of the teleconferences to discuss these recommendations. Dr. Li expressed concern that the media and the public may misinterpret the SAB’s draft recommendations as they were then written, as stating that EPA’s topline finding is unsubstantiated, which was not what the SAB is actually saying. By clarifying that the phrase “no widespread, systemic impact” stands, SAB is making that distinction.

Fact #2: Four SAB panel members say EPA’s topline finding is “accurate, unambiguous”

As EID has noted before, the SAB recommendations include a dissenting opinion authored by panel member Walt Hufford, who is joined by three other panel colleagues: Dr. Stephen W. Almond, Dr. Shari Dunn-Norman, and John V. Fontana. The dissenting opinion clearly states,

“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 report 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.”

During one of the teleconferences to discuss the recommendations, several members of the SAB voiced their support for the dissenting opinion and for EPA’s topline finding. As Dr. Shari Dunn-Norman explained,

“I’ve been giving this a lot of thought […] of Walt’s opinion and I would like to support his opinion completely.  Looking up the definitions in Webster of “widespread” it means over a large area or a large number of people. And I don’t think the actual data that’s in this report shows any large widespread effects […] The word systemic means of a whole system and I don’t think we saw any real data of the whole hydraulic fracturing water system that really supports a systematic failure. So I feel that Walt is correct and I actually feel like the conclusion of the first report is correct.”  (emphasis added)

Dr. Dunn-Norman later explained how her experience led to this opinion:

“I just wanted to point out, like a number of committee members here I’ve had a large number of years-experience in the industry and my opinions are formed by my experience.  And in my experience we did massive hydraulic fracturing back in the 1970s and 1980s and we just didn’t see major problems.  And if there were really some very big issues with this, we would probably have seen them by now.” (emphasis added)

Dr. Stephen W. Almond agreed noting,

“I want to just join in with Shari. I don’t want to sound like we’re singing kumbaya but I’ve fractured all over the world been on literally thousands of frack jobs and I have to agree that I don’t see any widespread risk of any of the areas […]I’d just have to agree with that number one statement that Shari gave just from experience fracturing all over the world and not to say there’s not some cases that may need to be investigated like Dimock and Pavillion, etc., but overall I don’t see a widespread systemic issue here.”

Fact #3: Several other SAB members expressed support for the dissenting opinion even though they didn’t officially join

During one of the teleconferences, Dr. Stephen Randtke and Dean Malouta said that they were considering joining the dissenting opinion. Although neither ended up doing so, Randtke said during the teleconference that he agrees with EPA’s topline finding as it stands in the draft groundwater report:

“As I said back in October when you read this entire three paragraph introduction on page ES-6 on the major findings I have really no trouble with it. And so I’m sympathetic to Walt’s statement […] I disagree with the statement that we find that it does not clearly describe the system of interest or the definitions of systemic and widespread. Right up in the lines 11 through 16 we’re talking about above and below ground. It is talking about the systems of interest and the context and the entire HFWC in relation to hydraulic fracturing.  And then all these qualifiers we want to write in the next paragraph below that statement 22-27 they say could reflect that there’s rare impacts or there’s some uncertainty here and they’ve laid all that out.  So you know, I agree with kind of the whole statement as EPA has stated it. I think it’s a very good one.”  (emphasis added)

Fact #4: SAB’s recommendations and the dissenting opinion come to pretty much the same conclusion: EPA’s topline finding is sound

SAB’s final recommendations ask EPA to include modifying adjectives before the words “widespread, systemic impacts” while the dissenting opinion states that the phrase “no widespread, systemic impacts” is “accurate, unambiguous” but that the agency “could have articulated the agency’s statistical assessment more clearly.”

At the end of the day, they’re essentially saying the same thing: EPA’s topline finding could be more detailed but it is absolutely sound.

If there were any evidence to suggest widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water from hydraulic fracturing, the SAB would certainly be able to cite it in its recommendations. Without that evidence, SAB has produced a document that affirms EPA’s conclusion.


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