What just quietly happened at the Science Advisory Board review of EPA’s fracking study?

Critical recommendation from the Science Advisory Board Panel. Will EPA heed the Panel’s expert advice?

I spent 3 days in the Science Advisory Board (SAB) Panel review of EPA’s fracking and drinking water study. The SAB is a 30 person expert panel of multidisciplinary scientists from academia and industry. They were tasked with reviewing the almost 1000 page Assessment, chapter by chapter. I tagged along to testify with other NGO representatives and many people personally impacted by fracking activities. Among other things, we wanted to make the case that it is untenable for EPA to keep in the Executive Summary the top line conclusion, “We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have lead to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water in the United States” and the phrase “the number of impacts was small relative to number of hydraulically fractured wells.”

Clean Water Action has written before and submitted official comments with NRDC that these statements should either be omitted from the Executive Summary or revised to reflect the inherent uncertainty in EPA’s ability to come to any firm conclusions on how “widespread or systemic” the impacts on drinking water really are without further analysis, access to more data and defining what widespread and systemic actually means.

Due to the way EPA’s press release and Executive Summary were worded these were the headlines when the Assessment was released in June:

“EPA Fracking Study: Drilling Wins” — Forbes

“Fracking Doesn’t Pollute Drinking Water, EPA says” — Newsweek

“EPA: Fracking doesn’t harm drinking water” — Washington Times

EPA review clears fracking” — The Dominion Post

“The EPA Fracking Miracle” — Wall Street Journal

In addition to the media spin, policymakers and politicians continue to take one or two sentences from the Executive Summary or press release and use it to negate the very real concerns about oil and gas development — that needs to stop.

Thankfully, the Panel of experts agreed almost unanimously that these conclusions are not supported by the underlying data in the report.

The primary reviewers registered their concerns in writing:

“EPA should state what is specifically meant by “widespread, systemic”, and to what extent the methodology used in the assessment was capable of detection of such impacts had they occurred.” — Dr. Joseph DeGeorge

“I do not think that the document’s authors have gone far enough to emphasize how preliminary these key conclusions are and how limited the factual bases are for their judgments.” — Dr. James Bruckner

“However, I was looking for additional synthesis to support EPA’s major finding: “We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.” EPA does qualify this statement in the next paragraph by stating that this finding could reflect a rarity of effects or be due to a number of limiting factors.” — Dr. Abby Li

“The report reads: “The number of cases is small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.” The descriptor “small” is vague (and subjective). Can this be quantified (based on the available data) or a more precise description provided?” — Dr. James Saiers

“Put another way, there are about 700 pages (24,000 lines) presenting the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on water resources and human health but only 2 lines concluding that it is not a universal problem. Talk about a surprise ending!” — Dr. Scott Blair

If the expert Panel has these serious concerns with top line conclusions in the Executive Summary, imagine the general public trying to discern exactly what EPA is saying and what they should and should not be worrying about.

The summary statements that survive at the end of the review process must not be able to mislead the public — either by journalists working on a deadline or by stakeholders set to gain by downplaying the real impacts described in the body of the report.

Will EPA include the Panel’s recommendations in the final Assessment?