What Should We Expect from EPA's Study on Fracking and Drinking Water?

The Environmental Protection Agency is scheduled to release a draft of its long awaited study on hydraulic fracturing's potential impacts on drinking water this spring.

When EPA announced the creation of this study way back in March 2010, it was expected to be the first of its kind in answering critical scientific questions. While a lot of good science on the risks hydraulic fracturing (or "fracking") poses to drinking water has been conducted by other institutions in the past five years - and indicates legitimate cause for concern - we remained hopeful that EPA's study would still be unique by being the first-ever to ask a broad range of questions and to analyze the enormous amounts of data that EPA was able to access. In other words, we expected this study to in many ways be the first - not the last - look at the relationship between fracking and drinking water of this scope and scale.

However, we've said from the beginning that the quality of the study will depend on the details, including whether or not it is free from oil and gas industry influence. Unfortunately, recently released documents from the EPA reveal that the agency has narrowed the scope of the study and the data available, as a result of industry influence. This, combined with comments from some close to the study, does not inspire confidence in what the draft will look like. Indeed, recent reports suggest it will not provide a clear answer on the risks fracking poses to drinking water. A geochemist on the independent advisory board that reviewed the draft plan of the study recently told InsideClimate News: "We won't know anything more in terms of real data than we did five years ago. This was supposed to be the gold standard. But they went through a long bureaucratic process of trying to develop a study that is not going to produce a meaningful result." The article goes on to say "More than a half-dozen former high-ranking EPA, administration and congressional staff members echoed [that] opinion."

When EPA released an earlier study on fracking in 2004 - one that has since been regarded as inconclusive as a result of industry influence - industry fell all over itself gleefully declaring that it showed fracking was safe. More than 10 years and countless impacts later, we know just how wrong they were. Will history repeat itself? As we anticipate the release of EPA's study it's important to remember that no single study will ever be able to settle all the questions about the risks of fracking, particularly when bureaucratic interference and industry influence intrude on the scientific process. In addition to gaps in the science on drinking water risks that are likely to remain, this study is only investigating one aspect of the many serious public health and environmental risks associated with the industry. (As just one example, there is mounting scientific evidence that people both near and far from oil and gas drilling are exposed to fracking-related air pollution alone that can cause health impacts like respiratory problems, birth defects, blood disorders, cancer and nervous system impacts.)

All of that said here are some of the big things we'll be looking for when it is released:

  • The study should ask as many or more questions than it answers. We will be looking to make sure EPA is clear about remaining gaps and uncertainties in the science. Based on the study plan and 2012 progress report, we anticipate that there will be many. For one thing, even though the study plan included a broader range of questions than any before, there are still many that didn't make it in, even just about the risks to drinking water. And that is not to mention all the questions about the threats to air, land, wildlife, and human health, where we know there are still huge gaps in the science.
  • We also expect that one highly-anticipated part of the study will be completely missing: prospective case studies. EPA planned to conduct two such case studies, in which they would be on-site collecting data before, during, and after fracking. These would truly have been first-of-a-kind studies, giving scientists unprecedented access to study the potential impacts from start to finish. It seems that there's plenty of blame to go around for why these studies failed, although the exact reasons are still murky.
  • Finally, this study must be free of industry influence. EPA has actually researched this issue before, in a 2004 study on the relationship between fracking in coalbed methane formations and drinking water. But that study was heavily criticized for broad conclusions it made about the safety of fracking that were inconsistent with the underlying data and for oil and gas industry influence in the final version. That was an early example of the troubling pattern we've seen in EPA's scientific work on hydraulic fracturing. More recently, the agency abruptly dropped three high-profile water contamination investigations - in Dimock, PA, Pavillion, WY, and Parker County, TX - without providing any real explanation, and despite lingering indications in all three places that there could be a link to fracturing. We hope the current study marks the end of this pattern.

While this study certainly won't be the last word on the risks of hydraulic fracturing, we hope it will add valuable information to the growing body of scientific research. And, ultimately, EPA does not only have an independent scientific research mission, it's also the government body charged with ensuring that "all Americans are protected from significant risks to human health and the environment where they live, learn, and work." Therefore we expect EPA to use the findings of this study and it's authority to fulfill this crucial mission.