EPA 2015 Fracking Report: Beyond the Headlines

spinIf you have been following the issue of “fracking” for fossil fuels, you were probably waiting for the release of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) report.   On June 4, 2015, the EPA released its assessment of the risks to water by fracking.

Instead of clearing thing up, the EPA conclusion were muddied by misleading media headlines and corporate PR.
These headlines include:

  • Newsweek: “Fracking Doesn’t Pollute Drinking Water, EPA Says.”
  • The Washington Times changed its headline from “EPA: Fracking doesn’t harm drinking water” to “EPA finds fracking poses no direct threat to drinking water.”
  • New York Post published an article on June 5 adopting The Washington Times’ original language, headlined, “Fracking doesn’t harm drinking water: EPA.”
  • The Washington Times’ “EPA: Fracking doesn’t harm drinking water,” was also adopted by The Drudge Report, a highly influential conservative news aggregator.

Other media outlets such as National Public Radio (NPR) and CleanTechnica straddle the fence.

Media outlets and grassroots groups concerned about the risks and accountability drew other conclusions about the EPA report. An ECOWatch article: “5 Things You Need to Know About the EPA Fracking Report” summarizes a few problems with the EPA report, and MediaMatters points out “What Media Left Out Of EPA Fracking Stories: “Insufficient” Data, Lack Of “Any Certainty

DOES IT OR NOT

The EPA study began in 2010, five years later the “Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources” conclusions are inconclusive due to:

  • insufficient pre- and post-fracturing data on the quality of drinking water resources
  • the paucity of long-term systematic studies
  • the presence of other sources of contamination precluding a definitive link between hydraulic fracturing activities and an impact
  • the inaccessibility of some information on hydraulic fracturing activities and potential impacts
  • reliance on available data and literature to examine the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing from oil and gas on drinking water resources nationally

The EPA researchers had requested cooperation from the gas industry corporations in the form of sharing data and access to drill sites.   The EPA couldn’t legally force corporate cooperation, and almost all of them refused to cooperate.

Two corporations initially agree to participate in prospective studies, but one withdrew their consent.   Per Inside Climate News: One of them, Chesapeake Energy, chipped away at the scope of the plan over two years of talks, limiting when and where the EPA could monitor water, the EPA documents show. EPA officials and scientists offered Chesapeake considerable influence over the process in some instances. For example, when one site fell through after a year of talks, the EPA and Chesapeake jointly drafted talking points to use with the media, according to EPA emails.

Prospective studies were included in the EPA project’s final plan in 2010 and were still described as a possibility in a December 2012 progress report to Congress. By 2013, the EPA was forced to move ahead with the study with the resources and tools they had available.

Industry Blockades

The EPA designed the water study around these elements:

  • Analysis of data from companies about the ingredients in fracking fluids, fracking procedures and the health effects of fracking chemicals.
  • Computer modeling to understand whether fracking could contaminate water.
  • Laboratory studies of how fracking fluids might create new compounds in geological formations.
  • Toxicology assessments of fracking fluids.
  • Case studies, including retrospective research that would examine cases of reported water contamination at fracked sites.
  • Prospective, or baseline, studies in places where fracking had not yet happened.

Industry trade and front groups such as American Petroleum Institute (API) and America’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA) argued the scope was too broad and sought to narrow it only to the “fracking” process itself, which would be for a few weeks and ignore the entire drilling process and lifetime of a well.

Data Insufficient

Hampered by the lack of corporate cooperation, limited access to real-time data collection and the narrow scope, the EPA had to rely on other available data sources and studies.

One of the data sources was FracFocus, and industry funded chemical reporting website.   In 2013, Harvard Law’s Environmental Law Program gave FracFocus an “F” as a reporting tool.

Among the findings, Harvard Law found there were no standards as to what is or isn’t a trade secret. Industry corporations were free to self-determine what chemical was deemed a trade secret and thus they were not obligated to list it. Furthermore, no one was reviewing and verifying the accuracy of the data being submitted.

Of the 1,076 chemicals used in fracking that the EPA could identify, the agency was able to assess the chemical, physical, and toxicological properties for fewer than half. Of those, the majority have the potential to “persist in the environment as long-term contaminants.” Great, but how many of them are potentially carcinogenic? The EPA could find data for about 90 potentially carcinogenic chemicals, but offered no information as to what level of exposure people might have to those carcinogens.  EPA-Study-quote

While the EPA report does emphasize the data is “Insufficient” To Evaluate Drinking Water Impacts “With Any Certainty”, the EPA also said it “did not find evidence” of “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.”

The keywords here are “widespread, systemic impacts” which is in essence a very broad and vague conclusion based on insufficient data and scope of the study.

According to Geoffrey Thyne, a geochemist and a member of the EPA’s 2011 Science Advisory Board, a group of independent scientists who reviewed the draft plan of the study. “We won’t know anything more in terms of real data than we did five years ago. This was supposed to be the gold standard. But they went through a long bureaucratic process of trying to develop a study that is not going to produce a meaningful result.”

 The Bottom Line

Despite the 900+ page report, the EPA’s insufficient data and scope is unable to draw definitive conclusions.

Three case studies in Bradford, Susquehanna and Washing counties of Pennsylvania were among five cited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. EPA study did find links between fracking and drinking water contamination in Bradford and Susquehanna Counties where private water wells had been damaged by methane and ethane migration caused by nearby fracking. But the report found no evidence that homeowners’ private water wells and springs had been affected by frack fluids or waste water.

In Washington County, the same probe found ground water near a gas industry waste water impoundment contained chlorides that exceeded the federal health limit but that methane found in about a quarter of wells tested was naturally occurring.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection reported 256 specific incidents of private water supply impacts resulting from both conventional and unconventional (shale gas) drilling in 2014. Those incidents include water wells that have run dry as well as contamination.

What’s the bottom line? The EPA did find contaminants in water sources, but could not attribute it with certainty to fossil fuel drilling and fracking.

And the debate continues……

© 2015 by Dory Hippauf

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