Panel doubts study

The EPA’s own ad­vis­ers dis­agree with rul­ing that frack­ing is safe.

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Jen­nifer A. Dlouhy

A land­mark study by the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency that con­cluded frack­ing causes no wide­spread harm to drink­ing wa­ter is com­ing un­der fire, this time, from the agency’s own sci­ence ad­vis­ers.

The EPA’s pre­lim­i­nary find­ings re­leased in June were seen as a vin­di­ca­tion of the method used to un­lock oil and gas from dense un­der­ground rock. A re­pu­di­a­tion of the re­sults could reignite the de­bate over the need for more regulation.

Mem­bers of the EPA Sci­ence Ad­vi­sory Board, which re­views ma­jor stud­ies by the agency, says the main con­clu­sion — that there’s no ev­i­dence frack­ing has led to “wide­spread, sys­temic im­pacts on drink­ing wa­ter” — re­quires clar­i­fi­ca­tion, David Dzom­bak, a Carnegie Mel­lon Univer­sity en­vi­ron­men­tal en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor lead­ing the re­view, said in an e-mail.

The panel that Dzom­bak leads will re­lease its ini­tial rec­om­men­da­tions this month.

“Ma­jor find­ings are am­bigu­ous or are in­con­sis­tent with the ob­ser­va­tions/data pre­sented in the body of the re­port,” the 31 sci­en­tists on the panel said in De­cem­ber, in a re­sponse to the study.

The sci­en­tific panel’s rec­om­men­da­tions aren’t bind­ing, and the EPA is not re­quired to change its find­ings to ac­com­mo­date them. But they al­ready are rais­ing ques­tions about the most com­pre­hen­sive as­sess­ment yet of a prac­tice that has driven a do­mes­tic oil and gas boom but spawned com­plaints about wa­ter con­tam­i­na­tion.

An EPA spokes­woman said the agency will use com­ments from the sci­en­tists and the pub­lic to “eval­u­ate” pos­si­ble changes to the re­port.

A sig­nif­i­cant change could be a big blow to an in­dus­try that is cel­e­brat­ing ma­jor pol­icy wins, in­clud­ing the end of trade re­stric­tions that for four decades blocked the ex­port of most raw, un­pro­cessed U.S. crude.

Frack­ing, also known as hy­draulic frac­tur­ing, in­volves pump­ing wa­ter, sand and chem­i­cals un­der­ground to free oil and gas trapped in­side dense rock for­ma­tions.

For the study, man­dated by Congress, the EPA an­a­lyzed more than 950 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 could cause chem­i­cals to flow through un­der­ground fis­sures and con­tam­i­nate drink­ing wa­ter.

When the agency took a broader look at the en­tire wa­ter cy­cle around frack­ing, from get­ting wa­ter sup­plies to dis­pos­ing of fluid waste, it doc­u­mented in­stances where failed wells and above­ground spills might have af­fected drink­ing wa­ter re­sources.

Ro­bust peer re­view by the EPA’s Sci­ence Ad­vi­sory Board, es­tab­lished by Congress in 1978, is de­signed to en­sure the in­tegrity of sci­en­tific re­ports, agency spokes­woman Melissa Har­ri­son said in an e-mail.

She said the agency will use the com­ments from the ad­vi­sory panel, as well as those sub­mit­ted by the pub­lic, “to eval­u­ate how to aug­ment and re­vise the draft as­sess­ment.”

“The fi­nal as­sess­ment will also re­flect rel­e­vant lit­er­a­ture pub­lished since the re­lease of the draft as­sess­ment,” she said.

En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists want the fi­nal doc­u­ment to in­clude more in­for­ma­tion about al­leged con­tam­i­na­tion near drilling sites in Di­mock, Pa.; Parker County, Texas; and Pav­il­lion, Wyo. Those episodes “show how out of step the con­clu­sion is with the body of the re­port,” Clean Wa­ter Ac­tion oil and gas cam­paigner John Noel said.

Wy­oming’s Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity said in a re­port last month that there is a “neg­li­gi­ble” like­li­hood that frack­ing was to blame for any wa­ter con­tam­i­na­tion in Pav­il­lion.

Sen. James In­hofe, ROkla., said Wy­oming’s re­port sup­ports the EPA’s broad con­clu­sions.

The re­view panel could ask the EPA to re­scind its top-line find­ing al­to­gether or clar­ify it.

Sev­eral sci­ence ad­vis­ers re­view­ing the frack­ing re­port said the ev­i­dence doesn’t sup­port the EPA con­clu­sion about wa­ter safety.

Spill data alone “give suf­fi­cient pause to re­con­sider the state­ment” that there’s no ev­i­dence of sys­temic, wide­spread dam­age, said pan­elist Bruce Honey­man, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at the Colorado School of Mines.

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