Frani: The word fracking didn’t really enter the public’s consciousness until about 2003 or so.
Jamie: Fracking, which is short for hydraulic fracturing, is the process of pumping huge volumes of water, sand, and chemicals underground to release oil and gas.
Frani: The practice really got going in the early 2000s, and with that boom, some people began to notice changes to their water—changes that generated suspicion about the drilling method’s safety as it spread across the country.
Jamie: Because of the concern about its effects, Congress in 2010 directed the Environmental Protection Agency to study the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water.
Frani: Five years later, in the summer of 2015, the EPA released a draft report and press release—the latter of which made headlines—for just one sentence.
Jamie: That sentence read: “Hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources.”
Frani: The statement was surprising because the report did in fact find specific instances where hydraulic fracturing activities had impacted drinking water resources...
Jamie: And had identified several pathways through which that risk of water contamination existed.
Frani: The contradictory language in the press release raised questions about who wrote it—and why.
Jamie: The EPA’s own Science Advisory Board, or SAB, a group of outside academic researchers and scientists noticed also. They said the statement of “no systemic widespread impact” couldn’t be justified based on information in the report itself.
Dominic DiGiulio: I think the SAB made EPA walk back on that one, and, frankly, it’s really difficult to understand where that statement came from in the first place.
Frani: That’s Dominic DiGiulio. He worked for the EPA when it was investigating fracking in Pavillion, Wyoming, one of the study areas in the report. He’s now working for an independent scientific research company.
Dominic: I retired from EPA so I could write a journal publication on the Pavillion groundwater investigation. I wanted to make sure that story was told and that the data was published in a peer-reviewed journal. Unfortunately I needed to retire in order to do that.
Jamie: EPA abandoned their investigation at Pavillion, and at two other sites, one in Dimmock, Pennsylvania, and the other in Parker County, Texas. But, why? DiGiulio says it wasn’t because of the science.
Dominic: The reasons for the abandonment, in my opinion, were not technically based. When I was with EPA I made that clear to senior level officials. I essentially read a statement that said the decision to abandon the investigation was not based on technical reasons and could not be justified based on science.
Frani: The Science Advisory Board’s criticism of the draft report seemed to be saying the same thing. In EPA's final report released this past December, the language about “widespread and systemic impacts”? It was gone.
Jamie: The final findings showed conclusively how fracking can affect water and identified five "hydraulic fracturing water cycle activities" that in combination can contribute to those impacts.
Dominic: The SAB was absolutely critical to the integrity of the report. You have to be grateful to the independent science advisory committee to have ensured that was possible.
Frani: This time. But the EPA did a report back in 2004 that didn’t have a Science Advisory Board—and the outcome was very different.
Dominic: In 2004, EPA concluded that there was widespread injection of fracturing fluids into underground sources of drinking water. Somehow it came up in the conclusion that there was no impact. And you think, wait a minute, how is that even possible? The conclusions are not consistent with what's in the report.
Frani: It was possible because the EPA negotiated directly with the gas industry before finalizing those conclusions, according to documents obtained by ProPublica.
Dominic: That was a very important report. It did not have SAB review—just a group of people—most of which had ties to the oil and gas industry. And so that report was used to justify exemptions of hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Jamie: The exemptions were later called the “Halliburton Loophole” because of the efforts on the part of then vice president Dick Cheney who was previously CEO of Halliburton, the oil field service company that patented hydraulic fracturing in the 1940s.
Frani: The politics surrounding the 2004 report could serve as a harbinger for what’s to come. Under the Obama administration the Science Advisory Board was able to save the report from political interference, but with the new Trump administration?
Dominic: Whoever the administration is at the time pretty much dictates what the findings are going to be. There really is no wall between science and politics.
Jamie: And we have only to watch the first few days of the Trump administration to see that threat in action. In those first few days the EPA staff was ordered to freeze grants that fund things such as research, cleanups of toxic sites, and routine water quality testing.
Frani: The Trump team imposed a media blackout on the agency, prohibiting the EPA from issuing press releases, publishing blog updates, or even posting information on social media.
Jamie: Furthermore, studies by the agency will have to be reviewed by political appointees. The fear that decisions won’t be made based upon best science, but rather political factors, deeply troubles DiGiulio about what the future holds.
Dominic: I think we’re moving into a time period where I’m not sure science even matters anymore.
Jamie: Many scientists share his concern—so much so that they are mobilizing on social media and are planning a march on Washington this spring.
Frani: Employees of federal agencies are heeding the call, too. After receiving notices from the new administration to remove web pages and limit communication to the public, especially about climate change research and other science, anonymous staff and supporters have created "rogue" Twitter accounts to get the word out.
Jamie: Representing U.S. Fish and Wildlife, NASA, and even health agencies like the Food and Drug Administration, and the CDC, Twitter accounts using hashtags "#resist" or "#resistance" are springing up to protest restrictions they view as nothing short of censorship.
Dominic: The public has to be informed for a democratic society to properly function. There’s real concern over just shuttering of EPA in terms of its scientists being able to properly operate.
Jamie: And it’s not just EPA. DiGiulio says cutting off information from other federal agencies like USGS, NASA, and USDA could endanger public health and the environment.
Frani: Science helps assess threats to our food supply, determine drug safety, track diseases, and document how our world is changing from global warming. But if truth is being muzzled, who's going to help us get the facts we need?
Dominic: I think environmental groups, scientific groups, and academia are the last line of defense at this point. All the pillars have fallen or are falling. Hopefully things will improve, but I can’t see that. I think that concerned scientists are basically the last line of defense. 💧