EPA science advisers buck agency on fracking safety

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) went too far with its finding that hydraulic fracturing is safe, the agency’s science advisers say.

The 31-member Science Advisory Board is taking issue with the EPA’s conclusion in a landmark report from June that there is no evidence that fracking has “led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.”

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The panel came out with an initial 133-page draft of its report on the study Thursday, saying that the main conclusion of the EPA’s findings does not follow the actual data that it precedes.

“The SAB finds that this statement does not clearly describe the system(s) of interest (e.g., groundwater, surface water) nor the definitions of ‘systemic,’ ‘widespread,’ or ‘impacts,’ ” the advisory panel said.

“The statement is ambiguous and requires clarification and additional explanation,” the scientists wrote, adding that the main conclusions “are inconsistent with the observations, data, and levels of uncertainty presented and discussed in the body of the draft assessment report.”

The panel’s members have been vocal about criticizing report in recent months. They plan to finalize their findings Feb. 1 and forward them to EPA leaders for their consideration.

EPA spokeswoman Melissa Harrison said the agency looks forward to receiving their contributions.

“The agency uses robust peer review to ensure the integrity of our scientific products,” she said. “We will use the comments from the SAB, along with the comments from members of the public, to evaluate how to augment and revise the draft assessment.”

The Thursday report was a victory for environmentalists who have said the EPA’s June analysis looked far too favorable to the oil and natural gas industry. The substance of the analysis documented a number of cases in which fracking and its related processes affected water supplies, but those were overshadowed.

“There was a clear disconnect between the EPA’s top-line spin — that there was no evidence of ‘widespread, systemic’ impacts on drinking water from fracking — and the content of the actual study, which highlights data limitations, open questions and clear evidence of local and severe impacts,” Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch, said in a statement, adding that she is glad that the science advisers wanted to highlight fracking’s problems.

The oil and gas industry trumpeted the EPA report as a major endorsement of fracking, and industry officials want to make sure it doesn’t take a negative turn.

Jack Gerard, head of the American Petroleum Institute, accused fossil fuel opponents of trying to inject their ideology into the EPA’s science.

“The science should be settled,” Gerard said of the science board’s actions. “There are a handful of people who are not happy with the outcome, and they continue to drive their agenda based on ideology, not based on the science.”

Fracking injects water, sand and chemicals into the ground high pressures to free oil and gas that is trapped in rock formations.