Scientists urge EPA to say why it thinks fracking doesn’t contaminate water

The EPA draft report lacked clarity in “several critical areas.”


An independent board of scientists said Thursday the Environmental Protection Agency should clarify why it said in a landmark draft report on fracking that there is a lack of evidence of widespread impacts on water.

In a much-awaited report submitted to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, the agency’s independent Science Advisory Board (SAB) said it was concerned about the clarity and adequacy to support “several major findings” found in a draft assessment report on fracking the EPA first published last year.

Hydraulic fracturing is a process where drillers inject chemicals, sand, and water into wells to break apart shale rock, extracting oil and gas. Since the fracking boom began in the mid-2000s, mounting reports of rural communities dealing with failed aquifers sparked queries on the effects that fracking has on the environment and groundwater. Over the years fracking has also been associated with earthquakes and spills.

“The EPA did not support quantitatively its conclusion about lack of evidence for widespread, systemic impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources, and did not clearly describe the system(s) of interest (e.g., groundwater, surface water), the scale of impacts (i.e., local or regional), nor the definitions of “systemic” and “widespread,” the report reads.

The SAB report is a blow to the oil and gas industry which had backed the EPA’s draft conclusions ever since the preliminary report included the landmark statement that emboldened the industry’s position that fracking is safe. It comes just weeks after thousands of environmentalists marched ahead of the Democratic National Convention, calling for a nationwide ban on fracking.

The EPA developed the draft assessment report on fracking in response to a request in 2009 from Congress, which urged the EPA to review the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water. Experts have told ThinkProgress in the past that the study process could be the preamble to a federal fracking rule, given that the embattled Mercury Air Toxics Standard — commonly referred to as MATS — started in a similar fashion.

The SAB, comprised of 30 experts, also recommended the EPA discuss “significant data limitations and uncertainties” when presenting major findings on the fracking report, a document that condenses available scientific literature and data on the potential impacts of fracturing. It furthermore said the EPA should compile toxicological information on the chemicals employed in fracturing in “a more inclusive manner,” and recognize the many stresses fracking has on surface or groundwater resources.

Environmental groups quickly applauded the SAB review and said they would push for the EPA to adopt the recommendations that the agency could theoretically dismiss. “By choosing politics over science, the EPA failed the public with its misleading and controversial line, dismissing fracking’s impacts on drinking water and sacrificing public health and welfare along the way,” said Hugh MacMillan, senior researcher at Food & Water Watch. “We are calling on the EPA to act quickly on the recommendations from the EPA SAB and be clear about fracking’s impacts on drinking water resources.”

The final EPA report could be published as early as next year.