Give Us the Whole Truth About Fracking

Co-authored by Stephen J. McConnell

The facts are slippery when it comes to the great fracking debate in America, where truth, lies, and spin often collide and end up leaving us confused and dizzy.

And sometimes we sadly get treated to the perfect mix of manipulation of fact and fiction, courtesy of the powers that be, that leaves us even more dazed and confused than we were before we got that dose of unreality. That's what we're often subjected to in the fracking debate, and it even makes us engage in what George Orwell called "doublethink" -- the perverse ability to hold two contradictory beliefs as correct in our minds without noticing the contradiction.

But the latest example of the fracking doublethink has major implications for our health and our nation: the EPA's recently released landmark assessment on the "Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources." The assessment concludes that fracking has contaminated many drinking water sources while also concluding that no evidence was found to declare that fracking poses "widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States."

That's just ludicrous.

We hoped the EPA report would finally give us an unequivocal statement about fracking in America and ideally a roadmap to help us make sure this industry poses no threat to our drinking water, our health, and our communities.

Instead, the EPA gave us an assessment on the current state of fracking in America -- based as they say on the "state-of-the-science" -- that is woefully inadequate: It is incomplete, premature, rushed and filled with so many caveats that it is hard to take it seriously with all due respect to an agency that is charged with protecting our health and our environment while contending with politicians who want to eradicate it.

To their credit, the EPA is quite clear about the assessment's constraints, or what it deems "limiting factors," which is a nice way of saying the credibility of the study suffers as well as their findings (including the conclusion that no evidence was found to declare fracking poses "widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources.")

These "limiting factors" include: insufficient data regarding drinking water quality in places before they were fracked and after they were fracked; the scarce number of long-term, comprehensive studies about fracking; and the "inaccessibility of some information on hydraulic fracturing activities and potential impacts." Regarding the latter of that series of limitations, we can thank the Halliburton loophole for that, which helps keep many of the chemical-laced fracking recipes a secret and prevents federal oversight of the industry.

Littered throughout the nearly 1,000-page report are other direct acknowledgments by EPA that a "lack of data" hampered its ability to assess the true impacts of fracking. These statements from the assessment are revealing:

This assessment used available data and literature to examine the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas on drinking water resources nationally. As part of this effort, we identified data limitations and uncertainties associated with current information on hydraulic fracturing and its potential to affect drinking water resources. In particular, data limitations preclude a determination of the frequency of impacts with any certainty.

And that's a tremendous flaw.

How can we declare "we did not find evidence" to support the statement that fracking does not appear to pose a widespread, systematic threat when there is limited data (a lack of scientific studies) on hand to make that determination? Not to mention that the "facts" reviewed by EPA were derived from state and industry studies that are subject to political and economic bias and undermined by data not so easily attainable (i.e. proprietary fracking formulas).

With all of these data gaps and potential avenues for bias, of course the EPA found it difficult to determine with certainty as to whether fracking posed a widespread threat. Yet amid these issues, the assessment still noted instances of drinking water contamination including "spills of hydraulic fracturing fluid" that "reached drinking water resources," as well as "below ground movement of fluids, including gas, most likely via the production well" that "have contaminated drinking water resources," not to mention fracking fluids that were "directly injected into drinking water resources."

And that's the issue: a problem exists, a big problem. We shouldn't have to rely on doublethink to get us by when it comes to fracking. We shouldn't be OK with it being somewhat dangerous (reported contaminations) and somewhat safe (apparently not widespread).

Also looking at how haphazard this fracking assessment appears to be, there's little question in my mind that it was rushed out the door by EPA (with pressure from industry) because industry knew the data, or lack of it, worked in their favor. Undoubtedly, it was also expedited due to the pressure from other interests, including environmentalists, because those opposed to fracking needed evidence delivered as quickly as possible to persuade Congress to pass tougher regulations on fracking.

But something that is incomplete, rushed and mired with a thousand caveats and excuses does not serve us well. We're not going to solve this issue -- or be able to differentiate between fact and fiction -- unless we collect hard facts backed by evidence to work from and act on.

But we can still fix it, so we know the whole truth and hopefully persuade Congress to enact laws that ensure the best regulations and regulators are in place to watchdog the industry. We can persuade the EPA to do the right thing and take the bold steps it needs to take: namely, conduct a more thorough and more honest assessment that also avoids citing questionable studies as evidence.

So here's what we must do next: The agency is accepting public comments on the assessment until August 28. We need to make sure the science -- and thus the evidence -- is right to ensure the great fracking debate is suffused with truth -- not spin, lies, distortion, half-formed truths, or worse, doublethink.

If we are to persuade Congress to regulate fracking nationally -- which, as a precautionary measure and even in the absence of comprehensive scientific evidence seems like a good thing to do -- we might stand a chance of protecting human health and the environment. And I say this knowing that we have already racked up quite a bit of evidence about fracking.

This assessment is a major step in the right direction. But the assessment must be bolder and more truthful. It must rely more so on the EPA's own analysis of fracking to draw its conclusions rather than the findings of others including the industry. Most importantly, it must be complete -- free of caveats and excuses about limited data and other so-called constraints.

That's all we ask: the truth and not the state-of-the-science or any other euphemisms we've come up with to politely explain that what we are still far from the truth.