As readers may recall, the US Environmental Protection Agency published a draft report in 2015 that concluded that there was no evidence that hydraulic fracturing (“fracing”) led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.
Environmental groups went ballistic over this conclusion. Bowing to public pressure, the EPA decided to rewrite the report. In 2016, the EPA published a redrafted final report that you can read here. That report concluded that activities in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle “can” impact drinking water resources “under some circumstances”.
Shari Dunn-Norman, associate professor in the petroleum engineering department at Missouri University of Science & Technology, was a member of the 31-person Scientific Advisory Board panel of “subject matter experts” that reviewed EPA’s work during the study. Professor Dunn-Norman recently shared her thoughts about the experience at a Hydraulic Fracturing Technology Conference put on by the Society of Petroleum Engineers in The Woodlands, Texas.
The Professor was specific in her criticisms of the process that led to the EPA report and the report itself. For example, she indicated that she was only one of three members of the panel who had any background with the oil and gas industry. Actual representatives of the oil and gas industry were barred from participating. She said that the panel’s deficit of people familiar with the industry was a problem that plagued the EPA process from the beginning. Secondly, she indicated there was very little actual data used by the EPA in reaching its conclusions. For example, “just two papers were submitted to the EPA outlining rare instances in which hydraulic fracturing affected water availability, including one citing a single Eagle Ford well that suffered an excessive drawdown and went dry during a drought” and that this “was in spite of a study from the US Geological Survey from 2011-12 showing little-to-no local impacts on drinking water availability”. In fact, the maps in the EPA report itself shows that in most areas where hydraulic fracturing occurs, less than 1% of the available water was used for fracing. Another example: in trying to describe how fluids could migrate below ground, the EPA discussed scenarios caused by bad wellbore construction, such as leaks in the casing and tubing, which are not directly relevant.
Finally, she stated that the EPA report never addressed oil and gas industry best practices. Not only that, she also indicated that while the study “moved glacially” over the course of five years, “oil and gas industry practices have moved at light speed”, making the study irrelevant by the time it was finally published.
Professor Dunn-Norman and the two other authors of the paper analyzing EPA’s study thought the initial conclusion in the 2015 report was “accurate, clear, concise, unambiguous, and supportive of the facts the EPA had reviewed.” Two other committee members felt there was too big of a data gap to concur with any opinion related to the final report.
The impact of water use in the oil and gas industry is a critically important issue. Policy decisions should be based on science and fact, and not on the politics of bureaucrats in a federal agency. It’s galling to think that, instead of a useful study that could have informed our national discussion on this topic, millions of our tax dollars have been spent in a useless study by the EPA that adds nothing to these important discussions.