Scientists Who Are Questioning Fracking’s Impact Have Oil Industry Ties, Groups Say

A jar holding waste water from hydraulic fracturing is held up to the light at a recycling site in Midland, Texas, Sept. 24, 2013. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/PAT SULLIVAN
A jar holding waste water from hydraulic fracturing is held up to the light at a recycling site in Midland, Texas, Sept. 24, 2013. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/PAT SULLIVAN

In the summer of 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency said in a much-anticipated draft report that hydraulic fracturing has not led to “widespread, systemic impacts” on drinking water. That statement was for many as divisive as it was bold, for it invigorated the industry’s position that fracking is safe while angering critics who say it actually creates a long list of environmental problems, including an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

Since that draft report was released, the EPA’s independent Science Advisory Board panel has questioned it twice, most recently saying the panel is “concerned” that major findings “are ambiguous and appear inconsistent with the observations, data, and levels of uncertainty presented and discussed in the body of the draft assessment report.”

As the SAB’s final peer review nears, a draft dissent from at least four board members with ties to the oil and gas industry is being challenged by the Americans Against Fracking Coalition. In a letter sent Wednesday to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, the advocacy group, which includes Food and Water Watch along with hundreds of other organizations, said dissenting members’ connections with the fracking industry mean they “have clear conflicts of interest.” While urging the EPA to reject the dissent, the coalition claimed members “do not have any scientific basis for their dissent.”

“The [EPA’s statement] itself is a political line without scientific basis, and so as a result, it becomes a political statement,” Hugh MacMillan, senior researcher at Food and Water Watch, told ThinkProgress.

In March, the SAB panel met twice for several hours to figure out their final peer reviewed report, a document the EPA will use to craft a report on the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water as Congress requested in 2009. That EPA report, experts told ThinkProgress in past interviews, could be the early signs of a federal fracking rule — though as of now, the EPA’s jurisdiction over fracking is limited thanks to Congress. The dissent could lead the EPA to think that there is a divided scientific opinion on the matter, environmentalists have said.

The letter is the latest attempt by organizations to sway the EPA against hydraulic fracturing. It comes as the industry has been on the offensive since an assistant professor of geology at the University of Cincinnati said she couldn’t detect one instance of contamination after a three-year study in Ohio. Elsewhere, however, multiple states and counties are growing wary about the consequences of unearthing oil and gas from rock by injecting water and chemicals into wells. Water contamination has been linked to oil and gas operations in Texas, Ohio, California, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, a major fracking location, two families who had been fighting to prove their water well won a multimillion-dollar lawsuit last March.

As EPA Struggles With Fracking Pollution Data, Polluters Safely Settle LawsuitsClimate by CREDIT: AP Photo/LM Otero Before Cabot Oil and Gas Corporation fracked inside the property of Frederick and…thinkprogress.orgSo far the majority of the 31 experts on the panel have questioned the EPA’s statement on fracking impacts, saying it was inconsistent with observations and data. Some members noted the data was insufficient to reach the decision. “I really wish that we could revise this somehow to stress that the connection between what’s in the report and the statement is really hard to see,” said Thomas Young, professor of civil and environmental engineering at University of California, Davis, during one of the meetings. A handful, however, said the EPA is right and got behind the dissent opinion, though the panel tried to revise semantics to get everyone on board.

“I’m going to hold to my opinion on this,” said Walter Hufford, director of government and regulatory affairs for Talisman Energy USA Inc., an oil and gas production company. Hufford, who spearheaded the dissent, then explained that to him, the EPA’s conclusion “was concise and clear and did not need to be changed.”

John Fontana, a geologist and president of Vista GeoScience LLC; Shari Dunn-Norman, a professor of geosciences and geological and petroleum engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology; and Stephen W. Almond, who recently retired from Fritz Industries, also said they agreed with the EPA. All of them are singled out in the letter to the EPA for their ties to the industry. “They represent the oil and gas industry, and have clear conflicts of interest,” the letter reads. “Their dissent is based on political considerations, not the public’s best interest.”

None of the dissenters responded to request for comment. A request for comment asking the EPA whether it can reject the dissent went unanswered as of press time.

David Dzombak, a Carnegie Mellon University engineering professor who chairs the panel, said the EPA solicits nominations and EPA staff pick members after a vetting process. In an email to ThinkProgress, Dzombak also said the procedure allows the inclusion of dissenting views in advisory reports. “The panel has reviewed and continues to review all public comments submitted to the docket opened for our advisory effort, as input to our deliberations,” said Dzombak, who couldn’t provide a timeline for the panel’s final report.