The US Environmental Protection Agency touched off a virtual tsumani of criticism from environmental stakeholders in June 2015, when it released a major oil and gas fracking study that seemed to downplay the risk to the nation’s water resources. The drilling industry welcomed the report as vindication but it looks like both sides should have taken a deep breath and waited, because the 2015 report was only a draft version.
Earlier this month EPA released the final results of its fracking study. Although the final report was based on essentially the same data as the draft version, it elicited exactly the opposite set of responses. So, what changed?
Reading the fine fracking print
The main problem with the draft version of the fracking study seems to have been rooted in the way that EPA chose to present it to the public, not in the report itself.
EPA issued a press release for the draft report on June 4, 2015. Right under the headline, “Potential Impacts to Drinking Water Resources from Hydraulic Fracturing Activities,” the press release provided a one-sentence summary that sparked waves of dismay among environmental groups and scientific organizations:
Assessment shows hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources…
That was actually not the entire one-sentence summary. The full sentence contains an important caveat (emphasis added):
Assessment shows hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources and identifies important vulnerabilities to drinking water resources.
That “important vulnerabilities” caveat was repeated in the first paragraph of the press release (emphasis added again):
The assessment, done at the request of Congress, shows that while hydraulic fracturing activities in the U.S. are carried out in a way that have not led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources, there are potential vulnerabilities in the water lifecycle that could impact drinking water.
The press release is also pretty clear that those risk factors do exist, and they do cause problems in specific cases:
EPA’s review of data sources available to the agency found specific instances where well integrity and waste water management related to hydraulic fracturing activities impacted drinking water resources, but they were small compared to the large number of hydraulically fractured wells across the country.
As listed in the press release, the risk factors include:
- water withdrawals in areas with low water availability;
- hydraulic fracturing conducted directly into formations containing drinking water resources;
- inadequately cased or cemented wells resulting in below ground migration of gases and liquids;
- inadequately treated wastewater discharged into drinking water resources;
- and spills of hydraulic fluids and hydraulic fracturing wastewater, including flowback and produced water.
And, the press released emphasized that the study is intended as a risk prevention planning document, not a free pass for the drilling industry:
“EPA’s draft assessment will give state regulators, tribes and local communities and industry around the country a critical resource to identify how best to protect public health and their drinking water resources,” said Dr. Thomas A. Burke, EPA’s Science Advisor and Deputy Assistant Administrator of EPA’s Office of Research and Development…
Read the full report next time (or at least the Executive Summary)
Unfortunately, another significant error in the press release occurred in the second part of Dr. Burke’s quote:
…”It is the most complete compilation of scientific data to date, including over 950 sources of information, published papers, numerous technical reports, information from stakeholders and peer-reviewed EPA scientific reports.”
In fact, in the full report and the Executive Summary, EPA repeatedly warned that the data available to it was egregiously incomplete.
Partly because of protective regulations issued under the Bush Administration, in the Executive Summary EPA stated that there was a “significant data gap for hazard identification” for the majority of chemicals used in fracking, and that key data were available for only 73 out of 1,076 chemicals compiled in the industry’s voluntary FracFocus database.
The Executive Summary included a whole laundry list of data limitations and shortcomings, capped off by this observation:
…The limited amount of data collected before and during hydraulic fracturing activities reduces the ability to determine whether hydraulic fracturing affected drinking water resources in cases of alleged contamination.
In the Executive Summary, EPA also reminded stakeholders that it was not even able to assemble a definitive well count, and that the full report’s usefulness in setting policy would be limited because it is essentially a “snapshot in time and the industry is rapidly changing.”
Unfortunately, despite all the emphasis on risk in the press release and in the report, once the media got hold of that “no widespread impacts” introduction it was impossible for EPA to reset public perceptions.
A fracking report do-over
That brings us to the final version of the report, released on December 13 under the title, “Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas: Impacts from the Hydraulic Fracturing Water Cycle on Drinking Water Resources.”
The New York Times greeted the final version with the headline, “Reversing Course, E.P.A. Says Fracking Can Contaminate Drinking Water,” which is clearly not what happened. EPA already included specific instances of contamination in the draft report, and it also referred to them in last year’s press release.
So, there was no course reversal.
What EPA did do was revise its press release. In the final version, the headline is “EPA Releases Final Report on Impacts from Hydraulic Fracturing Activities on Drinking Water,” and the new one-sentence summary is this:
EPA’s report concludes that hydraulic fracturing activities can impact drinking water resources under some circumstances and identifies factors that influence these impacts.
Citing Dr. Burke again, the new press release emphasizes the large volume of information surveyed by EPA for the report, describing it once again as “the most complete compilation to date,” including citations from more than 1,200 scientific sources.
However, this time the press release makes it clear that critical knowledge gaps remain, despite the volume of information at hand:
As part of the report, EPA identified conditions under which impacts from hydraulic fracturing activities can be more frequent or severe. The report also identifies uncertainties and data gaps. These uncertainties and data gaps limited EPA’s ability to fully assess impacts to drinking water resources both locally and nationally.
In addition, the new press release — which is quite a bit longer than last year’s — emphasizes that impacts on drinking water have been identified by EPA at each stage in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle, and that these impacts can range from “temporary changes in water quality” all the way up to “contamination that made private drinking water wells unusable.”
Most importantly, the new press release emphasizes that the report is not a comprehensive list of instances where impacts have occurred:
Generally, comprehensive information on the location of activities in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle is lacking, either because it is not collected, not publicly available, or prohibitively difficult to aggregate…Because of these data gaps and uncertainties, as well as others described in the assessment, it was not possible to fully characterize the severity of impacts, nor was it possible to calculate or estimate the national frequency of impacts on drinking water resources from activities in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle.
Oil and gas stakeholders respond
All of this material was previously available in the draft version of the report, and most of it was included in last year’s press release. The framing was practically all that changed.
The new press release provides environmental stakeholders with a much stronger platform to advocate for increased regulation of oil and gas drilling.
It also pulled the rug out from under oil and gas stakeholders.
Here’s a representative sample from the American Petroleum Institute, regarding the June 2015 draft report:
A draft report by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirms that hydraulic fracturing has not led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources thanks to the safety and effectiveness of state and federal regulations, and current industry practices, said API.
And, here is API responding to the same information with different framing in December 2016:
…The agency has walked away from nearly a thousand sources of information from published papers, technical reports and peer reviewed scientific reports demonstrating that industry practices, industry trends, and regulatory programs protect water resources at every step of the hydraulic fracturing process.
Oh, well. As the saying goes, you can please some of the people some of the time.
Meanwhile, apart from EPA’s focus on water resource impacts, researchers continue to uncover evidence of serious public health impacts linked to fracking, including increased risk of asthma and low birthweight.
In one recent development, a study released by Johns Hopkins University last August linked high exposure to active natural gas fracking operations with an increased risk of combined symptoms including migraine headaches, chronic nasal and sinus conditions and fatigue.
Image: via US EPA.