WASHINGTON ― The Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board released a review of a major agency report on hydraulic fracturing’s potential impacts on groundwater, and it took to task the way the report’s findings were framed.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a process used to extract oil and gas from rock formations using a high-pressure stream of water, sand and chemicals. The EPA’s draft report, which was released in June 2015, found “specific instances” of groundwater contamination from fracked oil and natural gas wells or wastewater disposal sites, but the agency concluded that there are no “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources.”
Of course, everyone who has an opinion on fracking thought that report said what they wanted it to say: Fracking opponents pointed to the documented instances of contamination, while its boosters said that the lack of systemic effects shows the technology is generally safe.
But the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, an independent body that exists to review the agency’s research programs and provide the administrator with advice, said in a letter to Administrator Gina McCarthy Thursday that it has concerns about the “clarity and adequacy of support” for several of the report’s major findings.
The SAB is concerned that these major findings as presented within the Executive Summary are ambiguous and appear inconsistent with the observations, data, and levels of uncertainty presented and discussed in the body of the draft Assessment Report. Of particular concern in this regard is the high level conclusion statement on page ES-6 that “We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.” The SAB finds that the EPA did not support quantitatively its conclusion about lack of evidence for widespread, systemic impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources, and did not clearly describe the system(s) of interest (e.g., groundwater, surface water), the scale of impacts (i.e., local or regional), nor the definitions of “systemic” and “widespread.”
The letter notes that the public could interpret that particular line in many different ways, and in fact already has. It suggests that the EPA revise how the findings are described in the report’s executive summary, and more clearly link them to the actual evidence provided in the full report. The board also wants the agency to better describe the limitations on the data collection and uncertainties in the findings. And it recommends that the agency more clearly lay out the places where it did find evidence of local impacts on groundwater and any conclusions that can be reached about them.
Of course, environmental groups say the advisory board’s report reaffirms what they’ve been saying all along ― “The EPA’s own analysis shows that dirty oil and gas fracking contaminates drinking water, confirming what millions of Americans already know,” as Lena Moffitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Dirty Fuels initiative, said in a statement. And energy groups say it’s no big deal ― the scientific advisory board agrees with them that it’s safe.