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EPA Fracking Report Abandons Science, Critics Charge

The Environmental Protection Agency has been accused of using a new report on fracking to bow to environmental politics and misrepresent scientific conclusions.

Political pressure from environmental groups likely trumped science in the agency’s latest report examining fracking and its risks to drinking water, according to the Institute for Policy Innovation (IPI), a Texas-based think tank. This week’s EPA report removed the conclusion in last year’s draft report that found there has been no “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States” due to fracking.

The EPA denied that any politics were involved in the change, and many environmental organizations congratulated the federal agency for removing what they claim amounted to industry talking points and spin in last year’s draft report.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, refers to the use of pressurized fluids containing chemical additives to enlarge fractures in rock formations and extract oil and gas. The EPA reviewed numerous studies to examine whether the technique might cause contamination to drinking water and aquifers.

The agency’s final conclusion on the effects of fracking technology on drinking water has been co-opted by environmental activists, according to Merrill Matthews, an IPI resident scholar. This follows a similar pattern in the Obama administration, which Matthews says has changed course on scientifically reviewed projects such as the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.

“We’ve seen this again and again under this administration,” Matthews said in a prepared statement. “Politics, not the evidence, determine this administration’s findings. The only major water contamination since the EPA’s initial report last year was the King Gold Mine wastewater spill in Colorado – and the EPA caused it.”

The sentence in the 2015 report about a lack of evidence for widespread effects on drinking water was removed after EPA scientists received input from the agency’s independent Scientific Advisory Board (SAB), Christie St. Claire, an EPA spokeswoman, said in an email to AMI Newswire.

“After receiving comments from the SAB, EPA scientists concluded that the sentence could not be quantitatively supported,” St. Claire said. “Contrary to what the sentence implied, uncertainties prevent EPA from estimating the national frequency of impacts on drinking water resources from activities in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle.”

The sentence also failed to clearly communicate the report’s findings, according to the EPA.

The report released this week concluded that fracking activities could, under certain conditions, affect drinking water quality, especially if water resources are in close proximity to oil and gas drilling wells. But the report also referred to uncertainties and data gaps preventing the agency from determining how often such impacts on drinking water might occur nationally – or the severity of their impacts.

But the American Petroleum Institute, a national trade association, blasted the revised conclusions as an abandonment of science and a course reversal for the outgoing administration.

“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 in the hydraulic fracturing process,” said the institute’s upstream director, Erik Milito. “Decisions like this amplify the public’s frustrations with Washington.”

A 30-month study of drinking water supplies in the Pavillion Gas Field in Wyoming, which was completed earlier this year, backed up industry statements about fracking not causing drinking water contamination. “It is unlikely that hydraulic fracturing has caused any impacts to the water-supply wells,” the study said.

But environmentalists defended this week’s report as an honest assessment based on a comprehensive review of fracking research.

“The final study discards the industry talking points that ignore the fact that fracking has the potential to contaminate water during every step of the process – from water acquisition through disposal,” said John Noel, the national oil and gas campaigns coordinator for the environmental group Clean Water Action.

Last year’s draft report contained industry spin that misled the public, Noel said. “It was obvious that the high-level conclusion was inserted by an outside source and cheered by the oil and gas industry,” he told AMI.

More protective local regulations on fracking can be expected as a result of the report, Noel said.

“It gives federal, state and local agencies a foundation of research they need to do follow-up work,” he said.

Inadequately cemented well casings that allowed natural gas to pollute aquifers in Ohio and a 2.9 million-gallon spill of contaminated extraction water that affected North Dakota groundwater are some of the examples of problems documented in the EPA review, Noel said.

IPI characterized descriptions of drinking water effects in the review as isolated cases, often due to human error, as opposed to widespread effects caused by the industry.

But the National Resources Defense Council concluded that the EPA’s new report ought to bring some closure about the issue of groundwater contamination and fracking.

“The science is in: Fracking has contaminated drinking water,” said the council’s senior policy analyst, Amy Mall, in a prepared statement. “For years, the oil and gas industry has tried to evade regulation, wield its political influence, hide data and criticize science. These findings confirm what communities around the country have long feared – there is no room for debate.”