Science and the Politics of Fracking—and What’s Ahead

December 1, 2016 | 2:47 pm
Yogin Kothari
Former Contributor

Yesterday, (and then again this morning) Marketplace reported that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) downplayed scientists’ concerns about the impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water in a draft assessment published in June 2015. According to Marketplace:

“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.”

How we got here

A Marketplace investigation revealed that there is inadequate scientific support for the "widespread, systematic" language in EPA's fracking assessment.

A Marketplace investigation revealed that there is inadequate scientific support for the “widespread, systematic” language in EPA’s fracking assessment.

UCS has long had concerns about inconsistencies with how the EPA was describing the risks of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water. The executive summary and press materials accompanying the draft report suggested that there was nothing to fear. But that contradicted the findings in the body of the nearly thousand-page assessment.

Most people, of course, don’t read the fine print. The result? Misleading headlines, misinformation, and industry spin, all declaring that hydraulic fracturing is safe, even though the draft EPA assessment did find impacts on drinking water resources as a result of hydraulic fracturing activities.

In late June and July of 2015, UCS submitted multiple Freedom of Information Act requests to learn more about how the EPA finalized its executive summary and press release. The Marketplace story draws on some of the documents released through this public records request. Because many of the documents we obtained were heavily redacted, UCS is still trying to learn more about how the materials were developed.

Correcting the faulty language  

Since last October, a group of independent scientists that advise the EPA has met publicly multiple times to deliberate the findings and review public comments of the assessment. 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 found the EPA statement that “We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States” concerning.

It’s now obvious that there is inadequate scientific support for the “widespread, systemic” language. The scientists have been so clear about this that it would be really hard for EPA to keep that language in the final executive summary and assessment.

Independent information about fracking is needed

The EPA needs to take a leadership role and provide communities accurate, independent, and clear information about the impacts of fracking on drinking water. (Flickr Mike)

The EPA needs to take a leadership role and provide communities accurate, independent, and clear information about the impacts of fracking on drinking water. (Flickr Mike)

We can’t have an informed discussion about how to control the risks of hydraulic fracturing if we don’t have an independent assessment of what the science says about those risks. The industry has a compelling interest in preventing the federal government from doing that assessment, and regularly exerts influence to try to stop or limit the breadth of any investigation.

This particular assessment was plagued with delays and limits to its access to information. For example, while the agency conducted this assessment, the oil and gas sector prevented the EPA from obtaining data it needed to fully determine whether hydraulic fracturing is safe for drinking water. To its credit, in the report the EPA pointed this out as a limitation of the project.

And as we highlighted in a 2013 report, the EPA faced pushback from the industry when it was in the process of conducting investigations around water quality concerns in Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wyoming, causing it to back down from a full investigation.

Further, government scientists need the authority to ensure that their employers are representing their work accurately. If scientists are not free to conduct the research and communicate the results, communities will be less prepared to accurately assess the risks and benefits of hydraulic fracturing and respond accordingly.

Beyond fracking: federal science moving forward

As President-elect Donald J. Trump builds his corporate cabinet, science critical to protecting public health and safety will become more vulnerable to spin and suppression than ever before. Now, it is more important than ever for federal scientists to be able to follow the evidence where it leads them and communicate their findings to the public, without political or industry interference or pressure.

The scientific community will be watching the Trump administration closely and holding it to the same high standards that we would expect from any administration when it comes to the use of independent science, integrity, and transparency in federal policymaking. To put the administration on notice that we will hold them accountable, thousands of scientists across all 50 states joined 22 Nobel Laureates in an open letter yesterday outlining the scientific community’s expectations of the incoming Trump administration and Congress.

Federal scientists are critical to the health and safety of our communities, and the science community will continue to speak up to protect their ability to do this essential work.