EPA Fracking Report Needs Qualifiers, Scientists Say

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By Alan Kovski

June 14 — A much-debated summary on the risks posed by hydraulic fracturing to drinking water was kicked around again June 14 by scientists discussing recommendations to improve an Environmental Protection Agency report.

The EPA draft report said it found no “widespread, systemic impacts” on drinking water from fracking. The agency's Science Advisory Board (SAB) appeared likely to recommend the addition of some explanatory quantification to help justify the statement—if the statement is to be retained in the final report.

Companies now use fracking to stimulate oil or natural gas production in the vast majority of onshore drilling projects in the U.S., giving the report potential significance as a supporting document for regulatory policy.

Companies welcomed the report's summary statement as an indication that the process for creating deep underground fractures for the flow of oil or gas is basically safe. Environmental activists decried the summary.

The science advisers, discussing an advisory panel draft review of the EPA draft report, agreed June 14 that no significant changes were needed in the review, opening the way for final tinkering before a vote to send the review to the EPA. The federal agency is not obligated to make the recommended changes.

Board Sorts Through Ideas

Many other recommendations were in the draft review, and the Science Advisory Board spent much time debating which recommendations to treat as priority items.

Kimberly Jones, a Howard University professor of civil and environmental engineering, appeared to speak for many of the SAB members when she said she was assuming the EPA will not be able to address every recommendation from the advisers. That was followed by much discussion of what recommendations to elevate in importance over others.

The SAB debated the extent to which the EPA report should at least acknowledge the existence of best management practices and the progressive improvement of those practices. The EPA has said it has no intention of listing or recommending best practices.

Gina Solomon, a California Environmental Protection Agency official, said the subject might not be significant, given that regulators and others are most concerned about worst management practices.

“Fundamentally, what EPA's trying to do here is talk about the potential risks from the worst actors, not the best actors,” Solomon said.

Stronger Regulations Sought

The report was requested by Congress as a science-based document, not a regulatory vehicle. Individuals who spoke to the science advisers at the June 14 meeting were emphatic in their hopes that it would lead to stronger regulations.

Lynn Thorp of the group Clean Water Action said the EPA report should set out a road map to better protection of drinking water.

Melissa Troutman, executive director of Public Herald, denounced the EPA and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection for misleading the public and ignoring “rivers of evidence” that fracking harms drinking water. She called for a federal investigation of the agencies and said the state agency “has acted criminally.”

Industry Sees Good and Bad

The draft report's summary statement about finding no “widespread, systemic impacts” may have pleased oil and gas industry officials, but they had criticisms for some other elements of the report.

The EPA made much of the idea that fracking has occurred in “drinking water resources” and that leaks from oil or gas wells have contaminated such resources, but its definition of those resources was not confined to drinkable freshwater. It included much saline water on the theory that such water might be cleaned up enough for drinking someday.

“The draft definition of drinking water is overly broad,” Bruce Thompson, president of the American Exploration and Production Council, told the science advisers during the meeting. He said the broad definition was misleading to the public. The purpose of the report was to inform, not to confuse, he said.

The EPA report appears assured of growing longer, having weighed in at 998 pages in June 2015 following agency work that started in 2011. The report is largely an overview of existing information, with about 3,500 references so far, and the science advisers are offering more than 200 additional references for inclusion.

The SAB also is recommending the addition of information about prominent pollution cases in Dimock, Pa.; Pavillion, Wyo.; and Parker County, Texas, although none of those cases has involved definitive findings from state or federal regulators.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Kovski in Washington at akovski@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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