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EPA Politics Fracking
In December 2016 the EPA concluded that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, does pose a risk to drinking water. That’s a stark reversal from a conclusion reached during the Bush administration, which gave the oil and gas industry exemptions to the Safe Drinking Water Act. Science has been whipsawed by politics, and now with the new Trump administration, there may be another sharp swing to the right—threatening many protections to air and water. A former EPA scientist is deeply concerned that with Trump, science won’t matter anymore. Is there any line of defense left between us and environmental catastrophe?


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.

groundwater screening for methane in Pavillion, Wyoming 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.

Collecting groundwater samples in Pavillion, Wyoming 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.

Dominic DiGiulio 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.

Dominic DiGiulio 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. 💧


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EPA's Study of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas and Its Potential Impact on Drinking Water Resources

In December 2016 EPA released its final report, “Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas: Impacts from the Hydraulic Fracturing Water Cycle on Drinking Water Resources.” Read the executive summary, the entire report, and Science Advisory Board's Peer Review.

Stanford Researchers Show Fracking's Impact to Drinking Water Sources

A study by Stanford scientists, Dominic DiGiulio and Robert Jackson found for the first time that fracking operations near Pavillion, Wyoming, have had clear impact to underground sources of drinking water. "The research paints a picture of unsafe practices including the dumping of drilling and production fluids containing diesel fuel, high chemical concentrations in unlined pits and a lack of adequate cement barriers to protect groundwater." The study was published in Environmental Science & Technology. Response to comments on the journal publication can be read here.

Dominic DiGiulio, PhD

Dr. Dominic DiGiulio is a senior research scientist at PSE Healthy Energy. Dr. DiGiulio is also a visiting scholar in the Department of Earth System Science at Stanford University. Dr. DiGiulio completed a BS in environmental engineering at Temple University, a MS in environmental science at Drexel University, and a PhD in soil, water, and environmental science at the University of Arizona. During his 31 years with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Research and Development, Dr. DiGiulio conducted research on gas flow-based subsurface remediation (soil vacuum extraction), soil-gas sampling methodology, gas permeability testing, intrusion of subsurface vapors into indoor air (vapor intrusion), subsurface stray gas (methane and carbon dioxide) migration, and solute transport of contaminants in soil and groundwater, including that associated with hydraulic fracturing. He assisted in development of guidance of EPA's original guidance on vapor intrusion and the EPA Class VI rule on geologic sequestration of carbon dioxide. The focus of Dr. DiGiulio's current work is on human health, environmental, and greenhouse gas emission aspects of oil and gas development in the United States and abroad.


Masthead photo:
Fracking Near Douglas, Wyoming | WildEarth Guardians, Creative Commons

Published: January 28, 2017  © Copyright H2O Media, LTD.

Journalism About Water and the Environment
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