• Agency found no evidence of 'widespread, systemic' water harms
  • Review board says finding needs 'additional explanation'

The Environmental Protection Agency spent 998 pages last June making the case that fracking isn’t a threat to water, but its assertions boil down to just two words.

There’s no evidence hydraulic fracturing has led to "widespread, systemic" impacts on drinking water, the EPA said in its landmark study on the technique used to extract oil and gas nationwide. The EPA’s finding was seen as a vindication of the technique that involves pumping water, sand and chemicals underground to free oil and gas. 

Science advisers reviewing the EPA study said Monday the agency’s description isn’t good enough. During a six-hour teleconference, the Science Advisory Board review panel parsed the language, zeroing in on the phrase as too vague and ambiguous to serve the public. A repudiation of the EPA’s conclusions could reignite debate over fracking and drive calls for more regulation.

"It still comes down to what does systemic mean and what does widespread mean," said Susan Brantley, a member of the review panel and director of the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute at Pennsylvania State University. "And in this sentence, it’s not clear."

Review Panel

The 31-member review panel is on track to ask the EPA to revise its top-line finding. On Monday, members tentatively agreed that "the statement has been interpreted in many different ways and requires clarification and additional explanation."

The group will continue refining its final recommendations to EPA, possibly with another public meeting March 7, before releasing them later this year.

Some panel members said Monday they were concerned the conclusion of the EPA’s study overlooked individual instances where failed wells and above-ground spills may have affected drinking water, including allegations of contamination in Dimock, Pennsylvania, Parker County, Texas, and Pavillion, Wyoming.

"It is irrefutable that they have experienced major problems with their water supply and we cannot diminish that," said Dean Malouta, a panel member and Houston-based oil and gas consultant. "I don’t want to condemn hydraulic fracturing across the United States with a broad brush; I want to say that in many areas it is safe and there isn’t a problem, but we have to figure out in these areas where there is a problem, what that problem is."

The Science Advisory Board, created by Congress in 1978 to advise the EPA administrator, includes an array of experts, including geologists and engineers. The panel’s recommendations aren’t binding, and the EPA isn’t required to change its study to accommodate them.

Drilling Boom

The peer review is already sharpening scrutiny of the study, widely lauded as the broadest assessment yet of the process that has driven a domestic drilling boom.

EPA spokeswoman Melissa Harrison said the agency would use the science advisory board’s analysis to evaluate how to revise a study that already "advances scientific understanding of the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources."

"The agency uses robust peer review to ensure the integrity and strength of our scientific products," she said in an e-mailed statement.

In developing its assessment, the EPA analyzed more than 3,500 sources of information, including previously published papers, state reports and the agency’s own scientific research, but found no clear evidence that the fracking process itself caused chemicals to flow through underground fissures and immediately contaminate drinking water. The agency said injecting fluids into formations that also contain drinking water resources "directly affects the quality of that water."

Top Line

Public attention focused on the top-line finding.

"There’s more to the ’widespread, systemic’ line than the generic dictionary meanings of these words," Hugh MacMillan, a senior researcher with the public interest group Food and Water Watch, told the board during a public comment session Monday. Some incidents may be considered widespread and systemic to a local community, even if they don’t clear that threshold nationally, he said.

Nichole Saunders, an attorney with the climate and energy program at the Environmental Defense Fund, suggested too much attention was paid to EPA’s headline finding. 

"Impacts that aren’t widespread or systemic are still impacts," she told the panel. "Even if they are outliers, infrequent, rare, localized or poorly understood, these impacts matter and they should not be ignored. No interests are served by translating years of work in to a one-sentence headline that does little to advance our understanding of today’s operations and their potential impacts on the environment."

Industry representatives said the history of fracking shows it is safe. "This technology has been applied more than 2 million times with no documented cases of groundwater contamination," said Erik Milito, a director with the American Petroleum Institute, a Washington-based trade group for the oil and natural gas industry. "The science in support of EPA’s conclusion of no widespread, systemic impacts is credible and clear; any other conclusion would simply ignore the science."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE