Under pressure

Documents reveal EPA consented to industry demands on study into fracking’s effect on drinking water

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Joshua Doubek/Wikimedia /Commons

Fracking has no “widespread, systematic” impacts on drinking water, according to a draft of an Environmental Protection Agency study released June 4, but industry influence on the study invites skepticism.

The study began in 2010 when Congress directed the EPA to investigate whether fracking poses a threat to drinking water. Five years and $30 million later, internal documents obtained by Greenpeace via an open records request show the energy industry has been extensively involved since day one — paying for tests, supplying data and editing drafts.

The EPA, however, stands by the validity of its work.

“[The study] is the most comprehensive assessment to date of the scientific information available on the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing activities on our drinking water resources,” said Tom Burke, assistant administrator of the EPA Office of Research and Development, during a conference call June 4.

According to the documents, which detail negotiations between the EPA and industry partners, the federal agency planned to monitor water throughout the gas extraction process. It would test water before energy companies began work to get baseline water quality and monitor from there on out.

Baseline tests were planned for a Chesapeake Energy site in Louisiana. The Oklahoma-based energy company was concerned that the EPA wouldn’t be able to separate new impacts of fracking from those of decades of pre-existing petroleum development in the area, Geoffrey Thyne says, a geochemist who was part of the EPA’s independent Science Advisory Board that reviewed the study in 2011. After two years of planning, Chesapeake started drilling the site before the EPA could gather baseline data.

EPA proposed other sites, but none panned out. The draft lists a key limitation of the study as lacking data from before drilling, which impedes determining if fracking causes contamination.

“The fundamental question that was driving [the study] was: Could hydraulic fracturing be a concern to drinking water quality?” Thyne says.

“[The study] does not have data from sites before, during and after actual fracking operations and everything else aside, there’s probably lots of good work in there, but that was the question the study was supposed to answer,” Thyne says. “If you don’t have that data you can’t answer that question.”

In the fall of 2010, the EPA asked nine natural gas service companies to provide information for the study — most said no. Two that agreed, Chesapeake Energy and Range Resources, said they would only participate if the EPA would play by their rules. The EPA acquiesced.

Internal documents show the extent of demands by Chesapeake and Range Resources, including when and how data would be collected. They could shadow EPA testing with tests of their own. They questioned EPA’s methods and repeatedly stressed that the study’s scope should be narrowed to look only at the hydraulic fracturing portion of the process.

Both Chesapeake and Range Resources were to receive three days notice before testing and no photos or videos could be taken without written consent. The companies could review all data collected before publication. Chesapeake also reserved the right to declare information confidential.

Chesapeake officials were allowed to edit draft reports. A comment from the EPA read, “You guys are part of the team here — please write things in as you see fit.”

A study led by Donald Siegel of Syracuse University published in Environmental Science & Technology in March, 2015 found methane in drinking water wells surrounding fracking operations but determined that it was not linked to fracking. The legitimacy of this study, like the EPA’s, has been questioned because of its ties to industry. Chesapeake supplied the data and it was later revealed that the lead author received undisclosed funding from Chesapeake and another author was a former Chesapeake employee.

Chesapeake declined to comment to the Boulder Weekly on their involvement in the recent EPA study.

While Range Resources did not ultimately participate in the study, only providing examples of their fracking chemicals, they would not respond to questions regarding why they backed out. Matt Pitzarella, spokesman for Range Resources, would only respond via email, repeatedly stating, “We were not involved in the study.”

Burke told reporters during the June 4 conference call, that limitations in data were not the result of working with industry, but rather a “question of scientific capabilities.”

Burke said the study found fracking processes contaminated drinking water in some isolated cases, but those were few relative to the total number of fracked wells.

“We found specific instances where one or more of these mechanisms led to impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells,” the draft report reads. “The cases occurred during both routine activities and accidents and have resulted in impacts to surface or ground water.”

The overall message of the draft is that fracking isn’t a serious threat to water. But Burke noted that drinking water resources might be vulnerable to impacts from fracking. He listed areas of concern as: taking fracking water from areas where water is scarce; fracking fluid spills; water flowing back out of wells; fracking in rock formations that contain drinking water; well failures; underground movement of water and gas; and improperly treated wastewater.

Thyne says when industry’s involved, studies rarely find serious problems.

“Everybody’s got a vested interest,” he says. “It’s difficult for industry to step aside and let the science be purely driven by the EPA. I think you could easily come back and say the EPA’s got a vested interest. And that’s true — they do. In theory their agenda is to protect the general population from anything bad that’s gonna happen. Industry’s is to make money.”

Thyne says look to academia where dozens of studies, including those from Duke University, Stanford University, Ohio State University and the University of Texas at Arlington, have been conducted without industry provided data or funding.

“Instead of the EPA leading the way, we’re watching the academic community lead the way,” Thyne says. “Doing studies without getting permission from industry, providing information that is not always ‘there’s no problem.’”