During Sunday’s Democratic presidential debate in Flint, Michigan, Sarah Bellaire, a student at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, asked the candidates if they support fracking. Without getting into the politics or the candidates’ positions, there was a particular piece of Senator Bernie Sanders’ (D-VT) answer that piqued my interest. Senator Sanders said:
“This is a national crisis. And I talk to scientists who tell me that fracking is doing terrible things to water systems all over this country.”
Now, for anyone who has been following this issue closely, they would know that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a draft assessment “on the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing activites on drinking water resources” last summer. In a (what can only be described as misleading) press release, the agency claimed that fracking has “not led to widespread systemic impacts to drinking water resources.”
How do we make sense of these conflicting messages?
Since the report’s release, an EPA Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) has publicly met multiple times to deliberate the findings and review public comments (including those provided by more than 18,000 UCS supporters and Science Network members last September). So far, several of the SAB panelists agree that the EPA’s high-level conclusion that the agency did not find “widespread, systemic impacts” is not representative of the data presented in the 998 pages of the report.
This phrasing in the executive summary and the press release, which the EPA intentionally chose to put front and center, has become a lightning rod for the agency, the SAB, and the public. Consequently, industry has used this to suggest that there aren’t any problems with fracking activities, despite the fact that the report itself and the initial external scientific opinion is contrary, with the panel going so far as to say that the wording “does not reflect the uncertainties and data limitations” described in the assessment.
The SAB most recently met on Monday, and will meet at least once more today. Ultimately, the panel is responsible for providing feedback to the agency that hopefully the EPA will take into account before finalizing the assessment. The SAB is expected to complete its review in the next month or so, and in an initial draft report (not yet final) to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, has raised concerns and asked for more clarity around the major findings.
Specifically, the SAB has hinted at asking for clearer definitions of “systemic” and “widespread,” and will most likely ask the EPA to appropriately recognize the importance of local impacts related to fracking activities in the executive summary and supporting materials, instead of downplaying them.
An inherent contradiction
However, there is some dissent. Led by Walter Hufford, who works for Talisman Energy, a handful of SAB panelists believe that the EPA’s topline finding is accurate and does not need any modification. This goes against what many of the panelists believe, and, also downplays the impacts of fracking activities in communities across the country.
More importantly, as my colleague Dr. Gretchen Goldman noted last summer, the draft assessment itself “found specific instances where well integrity and waste water management related to hydraulic fracturing activities impacted drinking water resources” and identified several pathways through which risk of water contamination exists.
This inherent contradiction is exactly why there needs to be more clarity in what the EPA is trying to say.
Questioning the definition
Hufford is also questioning what the EPA actually means when it talks about fracking in the assessment. During Monday’s meeting, he argued that the word “fracking” only refers to injecting water and chemicals at a high pressure into a well, and not the other activities associated with the “frack job,” such as constructing a well pad (before fracking) or transporting wastewater (after fracking). In his world, if wastewater from a fracked well polluted a water source (happened just yesterday in Ohio), it wouldn’t be as a result of “fracking.”
But this is a tortured argument at best. In the eyes of a community dealing with the impacts of fracking activities, there is no difference. And this is one thing the EPA is actually clear about. In all their materials, the agency continually refers to the topic of study as “hydraulic fracturing activities,” not just hydraulic fracturing (emphasis added), and specifically defines that these activities include everything from water acquisition to wastewater treatment and disposal.
It’s about information
As Dr. Goldman wrote, the point of this study, or any other fracking study, shouldn’t be to answer the question of whether we should support fracking, or whether fracking is safe. The point of the science is to tell us about the public health and safety risks of fracking (instead of just pretending they don’t exist), and provide accurate information to communities and policy makers so that they can make a well-informed decision.
The work of the SAB is critical, and the EPA’s final report can help citizens across the country sort through fact versus fiction. That is why the agency needs to get this right, and unambiguously communicate what its research and data suggest.