Study: EPA's Probe Into Fracking's Effect on Drinking Water Isn't So Clean

An industry-funded independent investigation of the Environmental Protection Agency's long-running probe into the effects of hydraulic fracturing found numerous flaws in everything from the EPA's scope to its lack of consultation with oil and gas companies.

“The study released today by Battelle—a highly respected independent science and technology organization—identifies numerous concerns with EPA’s ongoing hydraulic fracturing study," said Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Energy and Environment.

The 166-page Battelle study, submitted to the American Petroleum Institute and America's National Gas Alliance, focused on the 2010 urging of a House conference committee that the EPA “carry out a study on the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water using a credible approach that relies on the best available science, as well as independent sources of information.”

According to Congress, the study was to be conducted through “a transparent, peer-reviewed process that will ensure the validity and accuracy of the data. The Agency shall consult with other federal agencies as well as appropriate state and interstate regulatory agencies in carrying out the study, which should be prepared in accordance with the Agency’s quality assurance principles.”

The industry groups commissioned the nonprofit research organization to review the EPA's "Plan to Study the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing on Drinking Water Resources."

"Battelle’s comprehensive technical review found widespread problems with EPA’s study design, implementation, and quality control processes," Harris said. "The Battelle report provides many constructive recommendations that EPA can undertake to improve the transparency, quality and ultimate value of its study."

The report found that the EPA broadened its scope of the investigation beyond the congressional intent "to require study of more peripheral elements related to generic oil and gas exploration and production, such as various upstream and downstream stages of the water lifecycle as well as standard site development and production activities."

The researchers also found that standards of a "highly influential scientific assessment," which would have "raised the level of rigor, funding, timing and transparency of all stages of the study," were not implemented by the EPA.

The broad scope into other oil and gas production activities, including environmental aspects already addressed by regulations and industry standards, Battelle wrote, risks "weakening and obscuring the significance of the research findings and their relevance with respect to the central question about the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water."

"Additionally, ambitious schedules, driven by various 2012 reporting goals, may undermine the robustness of data collection and analysis as well as the soundness of scientific conclusions. Also, the site data collected from the companies are from 2006-2010, and the final report will be in 2014," Battelle found. "The changes occurring at these sites in the intervening years will likely render the data obsolete for purposes of the study."

The study also found problems with the quality control of the EPA's probe and its collaborative efforts.

"EPA’s approach, in a number of areas, is not consistent with this congressional request," Battelle wrote. "…Given industry’s extensive experience with production of oil and gas from unconventional reservoirs, its unique expertise in the process of hydraulic fracturing and associated technologies, and its wealth of relevant data and information available to inform this effort, it is a weakness of the study plan, and its implementation, that significant industry collaboration is not envisioned."

The EPA protested that its investigation is designated as a "highly influential scientific assessment" and said it will include all stakeholders, including industry reps, at some point in the process.