Understanding EPA’s Fracking Flip Flop

Published December 27, 2016

What do you get after six years and spending $29 million in taxpayer money? An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report on hydraulic fracturing that leaves much to be desired.

Rather than providing an authoritative, evidence-driven report, the final draft of EPA’s study investigating the impact of hydraulic fracturing on groundwater resources relies on qualitative analyses and leaves readers with more questions than answers. Given the size of the study’s budget and the time EPA expended to compile the report, it’s hard to fathom how anyone, regardless of his or her position on fracking, could be anything but disappointed with the results.

It’s important to understand the process this report has gone through to fully grasp its shortcomings. In 2010, Congress asked EPA to study the impact fracturing rock formations deep underground might have on groundwater. Despite the specificity of Congress’s initial request, EPA expanded the scope of its study to cover a wider variety of potential ways fracking might impact water resources, including the impact of acquiring water used for fracking; mixing water and additives to create the fracturing fluid; injecting the fluids into the formation—the actual fracking process that was at the heart of congressional inquiry; collecting wastewater that returns to the surface; and disposing the wastewater generated by the fracking process.

Choosing to expand the study was a wise decision, because without the expansion, the scope would have been too narrow to be useful, falling victim to the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. Multiple scientific studies had already concluded it was “scientifically implausible” for fracking fluids or hydrocarbons to contaminate water from fracturing the rocks below, so expanding the scope allowed oil and natural gas development to be viewed in its proper context.

EPA released its draft report in June 2015. Its top-line conclusion declared there was no evidence fracking created significant risks to the safety of nearby groundwater. “We have found no evidence these mechanisms have led to widespread or systemic impacts on groundwater resources,” said the report’s authors.

EPA also stated although there have been some surface spills and faulty well casings related to fracking, these instances were rare compared to the number of wells drilled.

This bombshell report was celebrated by the oil and gas industry and caused significant consternation among anti-fracking environmentalists. But before the study could be finalized, it needed to be reviewed by EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB), a panel composed of academics and industry experts tasked with providing advice to EPA.

After reviewing the draft, some members of SAB said in order for EPA to include the top-line findings in its final report, it must provide quantitative evidence to support the report’s conclusion about the safety of fracking or remove the conclusion from the report entirely. EPA decided to remove the conclusion from its report.

Given EPA’s track record of failing to update regulations because they’re “too burdensome and time-consuming” and its disastrous blunder at the Gold King Mine, it does not come as much of a surprise EPA would opt to take the easy way out. For example, one portion of the executive summary reads, “It was beyond the scope of this report to evaluate the implementation and efficacy of spill prevention practices and spill response activities.”

After six years and $29 million spent, shouldn’t there be very little “beyond the scope” of the report?

One might be able to understand EPA’s cautious approach to fracking if the agency had an established track record of refusing to make conclusions without an overwhelming trove of evidence to rely upon, but the manipulation of the agency’s “Social Cost of Carbon” calculation shows EPA is more concerned with political expediency than obtaining enough data to draw crystal-clear conclusions.

It is hard to believe an administration as determined to stop fossil-fuel development as the Obama administration would choose not to pounce on any shred of evidence suggesting fracking is impacting water resources in a significant or widespread way. This document was supposed to give decision-makers more information about the potential risks of fracking. Instead, EPA failed to quantify the risks in a meaningful way, despite the significant amount of time and resources used to produce its report.

In a world in which the majority of people quit reading halfway through news and opinion articles, removing EPA’s initial top-line finding has and will continue to give many a false perception about what the agency actually found in its investigation. EPA should finish the job it started by substantiating its top-line finding asserted in its draft report, which claimed there is “no evidence of widespread or systemic impacts” due to fracking.