Ohfergawdsakes. For all the squawking that’s going on about the new EPA fracking report, you’d think that that the agency has traded in its law enforcement hat for a ride on the Welcome Wagon. Well, we think not, for a couple of reasons which we’ll get to in a minute. Before we get to that, let’s note up front that the EPA fracking report — yes, the one that came out last week — is not actually a final statement of agency policy, let alone a road map for the Obama Administration’s energy policy.
Jumping The Gun On EPA Fracking Report
No, really, the new EPA (as in, US Environmental Protection Agency) fracking report is not a final document.
Go check it out and see for yourself. You can find the executive summary at epa.gov under the title “Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources.”
You don’t even have to read the executive summary to figure it out, just scroll down to the bottom of the first page — and every page after that — and you’ll see a this fat disclaimer:
This document is a draft for review purposes only and does not constitute Agency policy.
June 2015 DRAFT — DO NOT CITE OR QUOTE
So, why are some media industry leaders (New York Times, for example) treating the story as if EPA is letting the oil and gas industry off the hook?
EPA Fracking Report: The Money Quote
Well, that’s not hard to figure out. For an agency that’s trying to avoid being quotable, EPA sure needs to reassess its quotability.
The problem is that the June 4 press release announcing the draft-for-review-purposes-only document that was not supposed to be quoted or cited, leads off with one big, fat, juicy citable, quotable subhead:
Assessment shows hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources…
So, there you have it. Or not, as the case may be. Most of the media reports that we came across cited or paraphrased the above quote, but that’s actually not the entire sentence.
The full subheading contains an important conjunction (emphasis added):
Assessment shows hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources and identifies important vulnerabilities to drinking water resources.
If you take a look at the executive summary, which we will in a second, you’ll see the first part of that sentence almost word for word (ES-6 line 18) in the “Major Findings” section.
However, the second part of the sentence does a rather thin job of summing up the rest of the Major Findings, so let’s see what we can pick out.
So, What’s Really In The New EPA Fracking
Report Draft For Review Purposes Only?
Actually, the executive report is full of warning flags and caveats. Following are two big ones that jumped out at us.
First, the report starts off by debunking the idea that fracking has been around for decades with no ill results (ES-1 line 26). The historically safe thing has been a favorite industry talking point, but as we’ve pointed out numerous times on this site, until recently, fracking in the US was a relatively unusual practice conducted mainly in thinly populated areas. Here’s how the report describes it:
Hydraulic fracturing has been used since the late 1940s and, for the first 50 years, was mostly used in vertical wells in conventional formations. Hydraulic fracturing is still used in these settings, but the process has evolved; technological developments (including horizontal and directional drilling) have led to the use of hydraulic fracturing in unconventional hydrocarbon formations that could not otherwise be profitably produced…
To add some more perspective on the information gap, let’s recall that during the Bush Administration, fracking won a disclosure exemption from federal water safety regulations, making it nearly impossible for investigators to definitively link specific instances of water contamination to nearby fracking operations. Disclosure exemptions in several states have prevented physicians from identifying possible links to their patients’ health, and the industry’s practice of settling complaints out of court, with strict gag orders, has also contributed to an information blackout.
What The EPA Fracking Report Leaves Out
Second, EPA makes it abundantly clear that this particular report is designed to address only one area of environmental damage, the potential impact on drinking water resources.
EPA is also careful to note that infrastructure impacts (roads, pipelines, compressor stations, etc.) are not included in the report, nor is the huge issue of water resource competition with agriculture.
To be clear, we’re not jumping all over EPA for these omissions — after all, the agency is the one pointing them out. The report is simply not intended to cover all aspects of the fracking industry. Though the industry may spin it as a blanket green light, the report addresses just one narrow set of impacts.
As for drinking water impacts, the Major Findings section leads off by noting that there are “mechanisms by which hydraulic fracturing activities have the potential to impact drinking water resources” (ES-6 line 11). Farther along in the report, EPA also notes that the potential risk may increase with older wells (ES-13 line 6).
But, we digress. Hop back to the Major Findings section and you’ll see where it gets way too complicated for the kind of one-sentence summary attempted by EPA’s media room.
After noting the potential mechanisms of impact, EPA does assert that “We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have lead to widespread, systematic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.”
That’s the end of it, right? Guess again.
EPA follows up immediately thereafter with a full paragraph devoted to explaining that the apparent “rarity of effects” on drinking water could be due to the following factors:
…insufficient pre- and post-fracturing data on the quality of drinking water resources; the paucity of long-term systematic studies; the presence of other sources of contamination precluding a definitive link between hydraulic fracturing activities and an impact; and the inaccessibility of some information on hydraulic fracturing activities and potential impacts.
Despite recent, voluntary disclosures compiled by the industry-supported FracFocus database, EPA is still hobbled, to put it mildly, by Bush-ear exemptions, which the agency makes quite clear in this report.
The result, to cite just one example, is a “significant data gap for hazard identification” (ES-12 line 29), for the majority of fracking chemicals. EPA notes that key data were available for only 73 out of 1,076 chemicals compiled in the FracFocus database.
Skip ahead to ES-22 line 12, and you’ll find a whole long laundry list of data limitations, aptly summed up by this observation (ES-22 line 20):
…The limited amount of data collected before and during hydraulic fracturing activities reduces the ability to determine whether hydraulic fracturing affected drinking water resources in cases of alleged contamination.
EPA points out that the data set is so thin there is not even a definitive well count available (ES-23 line 4).
In terms of data-driven substantiation, far from a blanket exoneration of the fracking industry, the new EPA report is a cry for help.
To top it off, EPA emphasizes that the report is a “snapshot in time and the industry is rapidly changing” (ES-23 line 10) which makes it less useful as a guidepost for future policymaking.
If you’d like to share some additional insights from the new EPA fracking report, join the comment thread.
Image Credit (screenshot): Courtesy of US EPA.