The EPA Withdraws Claim that Fracking has no “Widespread Systemic Impacts” on Drinking Water

December 13, 2016 | 2:10 pm
Gretchen Goldman
Former Contributor

The EPA removed language claiming that hydraulic fracturing has no “widespread systemic impacts” on drinking water from its final report on the subject. The move follows criticism from its Science Advisory Board and revelations by Marketplace that the report’s executive summary and press release may have been edited by non-scientists.

“No widespread systemic impacts”

Hydraulic fracturing activities have adversely affected drinking water quality in several locations in the US, a new EPA report shows despite misleading information in communication of its draft report last year.

Hydraulic fracturing activities have adversely affected drinking water quality in several locations in the US, a new EPA report shows despite misleading information in communication of its draft report last year.

In May 2015, EPA released its draft report and there were inconsistencies. The report itself covered the risks of fracking accurately: It found specific instances where well integrity and wastewater management related to hydraulic fracturing activities impacted drinking water resources and it identified several pathways through which the risk of water contamination exists, including spills, improper well construction, and improper disposal of wastewater. None of this was surprising for someone who was following the issue.

What was surprising was the way that the agency communicated those findings in the executive summary and press release of the draft.  Inexplicably, these more public-facing report accompaniments downplayed the risks of fracking to drinking water, claiming “hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread systemic impacts to drinking water resources,” as if this was the fundamental question. But the EPA wasn’t charged with assessing whether impacts were “widespread and systemic,” it was charged with assessing the risks. This raised questions about who wrote the press release and executive summary and why such a discrepancy existed between these materials and the final report.

I noticed this oddity immediately. The EPA Science Advisory Board took up the issue.  In its final report to the EPA Administrator, the group concluded that the agency needed more clarity and support for major findings. In particular, they noted,

The SAB finds that the EPA did not support quantitatively its conclusion about lack of evidence for widespread, systemic impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources, and did 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.”

Communications that didn’t reflect the science

We tried to learn more about how and why these changes occurred by filing a Freedom of Information Act request. While the documents we received came back heavily redacted, we do know that there was a flurry of emails regarding the press release in the days and hours leading up to the release. We also learned that White House officials were potentially involved in developing messaging around the draft report. Last month, Marketplace was able to confirm that the EPA  downplayed scientists’ concerns about the impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water in the press release and executive summary:

“Documents obtained by APM Reports and Marketplace show that in the six weeks before the study’s public release, officials inserted a key phrase into the executive summary that said researchers did not find evidence of “widespread systemic impacts” of fracking by the oil and gas industry on the nation’s drinking water.

Earlier draft versions emphasized more directly that fracking has contaminated drinking water in some places.

The documents also show that the news release accompanying the scientific study was changed on June 3, 2015, the day before it was made public. A draft displayed a conclusion that the EPA had identified “potential vulnerabilities” to drinking water. But the final release dated June 4, concluded: “Assessment shows hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources and identifies important vulnerabilities to drinking water resources.”

Correcting the record: Fracking presents risks to drinking water

The final report has removed this language and replaced it with more accurate language that communicates the drinking water risks that the agency found. In fact, they even included an FAQ about the fact that they removed the language, noting that the claim “could not be quantitatively supported” and “did not clearly communicate the findings of the report”.  It is unfortunate that the original headlines after the draft report was released left the public with the impression that the EPA found that fracking carries no risks.

The agency listened to its Science Advisory Board and the public. But this isn’t the final word. This particular study had a lot of limitations, including a refusal by industry to provide data that would have allowed EPA to do a more thorough and comprehensive analysis. It’s important for the federal government to continue to have a strong role in providing information that states can use to protect residents from the risks of fracking.

Science wins for now…

The whole incident provides a cautionary tale for what we might expect in the next administration. If Obama’s EPA was watering down the science on fracking risks, imagine what a Trump administration might do?  President-elect Trump’s pick to head the EPA, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, is certainly a friend of the oil and gas industry and has a history of failing to respect EPA’s use of science.  As attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt repeated defended the oil and gas industry at the expense of public health and the environment and he is currently involved in suing the EPA over the Clean Power Plan (My colleague Angela Anderson has a fuller report here).

Disturbingly, Pruitt’s close association with Harold Hamm also raise questions about his ability to support the use of science on fracking. Oil tycoon Harold Hamm told a University of Oklahoma dean last year that he wanted fired certain scientists who were studying links between oil and gas activity and the state’s nearly 400-fold increase in earthquakes, according to the dean’s e-mail recounting the conversation. As my colleague Angela wrote, it’s hard to imagine that Hamm, who was Pruitt’s campaign chair and longtime associate, won’t be whispering in Pruitt’s ear to disregard or even penalize the scientists for inconvenient findings.

In this case, the EPA Science Advisory Board was able to do its job of advising the EPA (without industry or political interference), and for the agency to respond to that advice. This is how science advisory boards are supposed to work. Unfortunately, this may not be the case with Pruitt at the helm. Moreover, some members of Congress want to stack the science panel with industry representatives. Members of Congress must oppose legislation like the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act, because stacking the panel with industry representatives who have clear financial conflicts of interest would undermine the agency’s science-based mission, and hinder its ability to appropriately protect the public.

Shedding light on fracking

Moving forward, we must be mindful of both bold and subtle attempts to sideline science. The EPA and other federal agencies in the next administration will be under tremendous pressure to compromise science in some cases—both the usual pressure from the industries they regulate and pressure from their own political appointees that came from those same industries.

But for now, I’m glad to see the EPA correct the record on hydraulic fracturing risks to drinking water. It’s a small victory but I’ll take it.