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.

The American Petroleum Institute's senior policy adviser told reporters this morning that the study reinforced previous industry concerns about the EPA study and raised new ones.

"A robust, thorough, careful study is important because it has the potential to affect the future course of shale energy development, which has enormous potential for improving our energy security and economy for decades to come," said API's Stephanie Meadows. "We’re not calling on EPA to stop its study. We’re calling on them to do it right."

Though opponents of fracking will dismiss the study for the fact that it was requisitioned by the industry, a Duke University study released today highlights just how its mixed findings can be spun either way.

The headline on Businessweek was "Pennsylvania Fracking Can Put Water at Risk, Duke Study Finds," while the New York Times headline was "Fracking Did Not Sully Aquifers, Limited Study Finds."

Researchers found that natural pathways in the rock bed can carry contaminants into the groundwater, but found no direct link between such contamination and shale-gas drilling operations in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Regardless, fracking opponents are getting ready to descend on Washington later this month to protest the drilling technique that they say causes all manner of calamities from health risks to earthquakes.

The "Stop the Frack Attack" rally on July 28 will call on Congress to stamp out fracking while pursuing clean-energy alternatives.

The event in the nation's capital sprang from protests by environmental activists and celebrities upset with fracking proposals in New York.

In Washington will be actor Mark Ruffalo, who got upset over his upstate N.Y. neighbors leasing their land to gas companies. "I realized if I didn’t do something, it would destroy the place I live. I’d rather be doing other things with my free time, but when I learned about what is going on with fracking, it really challenged me – like, am I a phony or not?" Ruffalo told Rolling Stone.

"Then I went to Dimock, Pa., which is the epicenter of the fracking disaster," Ruffalo continued. "I saw people who were suffering, whose lives have been ruined by this. I also saw the total failure of our political system, our social system. The fact that something like this can happen in America is unbelievable."

Others expected at the Washington rally include Ed Asner, Ed Begley Jr., and Margot Kidder. Eighty groups are said to be banding together for four "days of action" including lobbying, which will culminate in the march on the Capitol.

"We need to share our concerns about fracking with President Obama, Congress, and the Environmental Protection Agency to stop the frack attack," wrote Sarah Hodgdon at Treehugger. "If drillers can't extract natural gas without destroying landscapes and endangering the health of families, then we should not drill for natural gas."

Rep. Harris, however, sees the Battelle study as the next step forward in proving that fracking is a safe and reliable extraction method.

"I hope and expect that EPA will work hard to address Battelle’s recommendations, and I look forward to following up with EPA on the status of this effort in the coming weeks," he said.