The Environmental Protection Agency walked back its controversial claim that fracking had caused no “widespread systemic” water contamination in the final version of its long-awaited study released today. The claim that appeared in the June 2015 draft assessment made the headlines across the globe, delighting the oil & gas industry as much as it chagrined the environmental community and those living with fouled water supplies. Fracking — shorthand for hydraulic fracturing — an extraction technology that, when combined with horizontal drilling techniques, set the stage for the natural gas boom and for profound health, environmental, and climate impacts that followed.
The decision to remove the “widespread systemic” claim was based on a recommendation from the EPA Science Advisory Board, a 30-member body that conducted an internal review of the draft assessment. Thanks to the intervention of affected landowners from Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wyoming, the SAB review was expanded to include public comments. In the end, the SAB received more than 109,000 comments, the vast majority of them questioning the claim. Some comments questioned why three high-profile EPA investigations that found contamination in private water supplies in Dimock, Pennsylvania, Parker County, Texas, and Pavillion, Wyoming. All three investigations had been abruptly terminated in 2012 without explanation. In 2013, the Los Angeles Times tied the decision to the Obama White House.
Four SAB members dissented when the board released its recommendations. Three of the four who dissented have among them decades of ties to companies including Halliburton, Talisman Energy, BP America, Anadarko Petroleum, and others while the fourth owns a Colorado-based oil and gas consulting firm.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy recently described the board as being as “fracked as the subject matter itself,” and continued, “While I can’t tell you the direction it is going to take, we are going to listen to all sides in terms of what the members thought, and we’ll come to the best decision that we can.”
An investigative piece by Marketplace released two weeks ago challenged McCarthy’s talking point. Documents leaked to reporters show that changes had been made to the language characterizing the findings after a White House briefing, something Tom Burke, EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator, downplayed during the press conference announcing the final report’s release today.
The “widespread systemic” claim, in particular, was not in the release dated June 3, 2015. By the next day, it was not only in the release, it was the topline message. In fact, the claim only appears in the press release and executive summary, not within the pages of the study itself. McCarthy’s implication that an honest disagreement existed that warranted the weighing of all points of view was simply false. The SAB was correct in noting that the claim was not supported by the study. The board also recommended that the Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wyoming studies be included. The final report includes all three.
Today’s announcement brings to a close a study that has been fraught with problems from the beginning. In 2011, the EPA announced that it would be conducting a study comprised of two parts, retrospective and prospective. The prospective part of the study was the more eagerly anticipated of the two because it was going to do something no study had done before. It was going compare water samples at sites about to be drilled with samples after the wells were fracked. To this day, no baseline testing of water is required anywhere in the United States, providing drillers with an easy excuse when contamination occurs. Ultimately, the industry refused to participate with the researchers and the prospective portion of the study was dropped.
For environmental advocates, the decisions to remove the unsubstantiated claim and to include the overlooked investigations provide much-needed confirmation of the dangers of fracking. What weight it will carry with the Trump administration is another story.
Karen Feridun is a regular contributor to Raging Chicken Press. She is the founder of Berks Gas Truth.