Board questions EPA draft report on fracking

Water supply issues focus of concern



A review by an EPA advisory board says that a draft report on hydraulic fracturing did not support the conclusion that shale gas fracking hasn’t caused significant damage to the nation’s water supplies.

The draft report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board raises questions about research, the lack of robust data and some of the language of the EPA’s fracking study draft, ordered by Congress to assess the risks to water supplies from hydraulic fracturing. Congress directed the EPA to create the advisory board in 1978 to review the quality and relevance of science the agency used to craft policy and regulations.

According to the peer-reviewed document by the 30-member Science Advisory Board, the EPA’s primary conclusion to its June draft study — that fracking has not caused “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States” — isn’t supported by the cited data, which has gaps and deficiencies.

“Of particular concern is the statement of no widespread, systemic impacts on drinking-water resources,” the October advisory board report says. “Neither the system of interest nor the definitions of widespread, systemic or impact are clear — and it is not clear how this statement reflects the uncertainties and data limitations described in the Report’s chapters.” The advisory committee suggested revisions to make the conclusion “more precise and specific,” and to “clearly draw” from the report.

“The SAB panel thought, with respect to some stages of the hydraulic fracturing water cycle, that there’s a lot we don’t know or have sufficient data on, and that’s stated in our review,” said David Dzombak on Tuesday. Mr. Dzombak chairs the Science Advisory Board and heads the Carnegie Mellon University Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” together with horizontal drilling, has made possible natural gas development in more than two dozen shale formations, some thousands of feet underground, over the past decade. The process, which has been used on a smaller scale for 70 years, pumps millions of gallons of water mixed with some toxic chemicals and sand deep underground and under high pressure to crack tight shale formations and release the gas and oil they hold.

But fracking has come under fire by environmentalists and some residents in shale gas “plays” because of water usage and risks of surface and groundwater contamination.

The EPA’s study report does, for the first time, acknowledge that fracking has contaminated water supplies in a number of locations across the U.S., including Pennsylvania. But the Science Advisory Board review document says the study did not pay enough attention to fracking’s impacts on local water supplies, and notes that the agency did not do planned prospective studies of shale gas drilling sites to compare pre-drilling and post-drilling water supplies. It also says the agency failed to include enough information about water contamination investigations at three sites, in Dimock, in northeastern Pennsylvania; Parker County, Texas; and Pavillion, Wyo.

And although definitive data on the frequency, volumes, chemical composition and environmental impacts of fracking fluid spills is scarce, the review states, the available evidence “points to a reasonable likelihood of environmental impacts from a subset of such spills.” The review also notes that fracking’s impact on water consumption isn’t known because of limited available data.

It raises the point that well construction is critical because of the nature of fluids coming out of wells: “While chemicals used in [hydraulic fracturing] may have various toxicities in varying concentrations, and, even newer, greener mixes may be safer, oil field fluids are still nothing you’d want to drink. The fluids coming out of the well (hydrocarbons and produced water) can be far more toxic than those being used for fracturing purposes,” the report notes.

When the EPA report was released in June, the shale gas drilling industry hailed it as proof that fracking was not harming water supplies and state regulations were effective.

Asked to respond to questions raised by the advisory board review, the American Petroleum Institute, the nation’s largest oil and gas industry trade organization, referred to comments it submitted to the Science Advisory Board in August, that characterized EPA’s conclusion of no systemic impact from fracking as “sound.” Those comments also criticized the agency for its methodology and findings, including the need for more study.

Travis Windle, a Marcellus Shale Coalition spokesman, issued a statement supportive of the EPA’s “fact-based hydraulic fracturing findings,” and questioning whether the advisory board’s review identified any substantial differences.

Work on the advisory board’s peer review of the EPA study report will continue at a public meeting scheduled for Dec. 3, in Washington, D.C.

The board’s draft review should be finished in January, Mr. Dzombak said, with a final report due in late spring. The EPA is not obligated to follow the Science Advisory Board’s recommendations, he said.

Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1983 or on Twitter @donhopey

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