EPA Backs Off Finding That Fracking Is Safe for Water

Source: By Jacqueline Toth , OPIS • Posted: Thursday, December 15, 2016

The EPA said Tuesday it’s less certain than it was 18 months ago that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, does not harm drinking water supplies.

In June 2015, the agency issued a draft assessment of the oil and gas drilling process’ effects on nearby drinking water supplies that found “no widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources.” But the final report, issued Tuesday, does not include that finding.

The study’s scientists decided not to retain the language because “significant data gaps” prevented them from meeting the EPA Science Advisory Board’s recommendation to support that conclusion quantitatively, and because the peer review process revealed the wording did not accurately communicate the report’s findings, said Thomas A. Burke of the EPA. Burke, deputy assistant administrator in the Office of Research and Development and the agency’s science advisor, held a call with reporters shortly after Tuesday’s release.

The exclusion of the “no widespread” wording is a disappointment to fracking advocates, who widely disseminated that earlier finding in public communications.

“Fortunately, the science and data clearly demonstrate that hydraulic fracturing does not lead to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources,” said Erik Milito, who oversees legislative and regulatory issues related to domestic oil and gas exploration for the American Petroleum Institute. “Unfortunately, consumers have witnessed five years and millions of dollars expended only to see a conclusion based in science changed to a conclusion based in political ambiguity.”

The altered topline finding was not grounded on additional data reviewed since the draft study, said Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., on Tuesday. “This is a clear political move to appease disgruntled environmentalists with the ‘Keep It in the Ground movement,'” Inhofe said.

EPA began the process for the congressionally requested assessment in 2010. The agency has reviewed each stage of the fracking “water cycle” for impacts on the quality of drinking water — including the water used in the fracking process, chemical mixing to create fracking fluids, fluid injections, wastewater collections and the water’s final disposal or reuse.

“There is scientific evidence that hydraulic fracturing activities can impact drinking water resources under some circumstances,” and at every stage of that water cycle, said Burke.

But uncertainties remain. Data gaps, says EPA, prevent it from making a full assessment of the frequency or severity of fracking’s effects on drinking water in this study.

“I can tell you from experience: Good science takes time,” said Burke, who added that more monitoring and sampling are needed to determine fracking’s effects on water.

Environmental groups Tuesday praised the final assessment’s conclusions and said it confirmed the dangers of fracking.

But the study does not make policy recommendations, and it is uncertain whether it would inform federal policy at the EPA under the administration of President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt.

“Given EPA Administrator nominee Scott Pruitt’s record of fighting fracking regulations, it will be important during the confirmation process for Senators to ask him if he will follow the recommendations of his agency’s scientists, or continue to rely on industry spin,” said  Madeleine Foote, legislative representative of the League of Conservation Voters.