The Science and Politics of Fracking in 2016 and Beyond

No Comments » April 12th, 2016 posted by // Categories: Energy Development Project




The Science and Politics of Fracking in 2016 and Beyond

Tue, 04/12/2016 – 8:00am
Michelle Taylor, Editor-in-Chief

Scientists have issued a new document with concerns and recommendations regarding the EPA’s initial Congress-commissioned report on the link between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water.

In June 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a draft report titled “Assessment of the Potential Impact of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources.” The report, commissioned by Congress in 2010, intended to do just as its name suggests—provide empirical evidence of how hydraulic fracturing either harms, does not harm, or does a little of both to the drinking water resources of towns located in close proximity to fracking sites.

Ultimately, the report concluded that fracking has not had a significant impact on water supplies, but remained cautious of potential risks.

“We did not find evidence that [above and below ground hydraulic fracturing] mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States,” the EPA report reads. “The number of identified cases where drinking water resources were impacted are small relative to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.”

Two sentences later the report says there is insufficient pre- and post-hydraulic fracturing data on the quality of drinking water resources, which inhibits a determination of the frequency of impacts.

For many, the report—over five years in the making—fell flat. Almost immediately upon release, the EPA’s document received flak for being nothing more than a 1,000+ page literature review on already-published information. Additionally, the use of the term “widespread, systemic” was frowned upon due to its ambiguity in definition.

“There is no original data or original analysis,” Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute, told Laboratory Equipment at the time the report was released. “It would have benefited from more widespread sampling, especially in waste streams and basins.”

Ziemkiewicz was right on target—critics were especially disappointed that no new field studies or actual experimental science was undertaken, given the scientific and financial resources of an agency like the EPA.

Fast forward to March 2016 and a Science Advisory Board (SAB) comprising prestigious scientists in the field, selected by the EPA, released a not-so-favorable review of the government agency’s initial report.
While the SAB draft report approves of the EPA’s overall approach to determining potential impacts, and even commends it for being appropriate and comprehensive, the panel is quick to point out its “concerns regarding various aspects” and its “several recommendations for changes to [the report’s] text and follow-[up] activities to address gaps.”

The first three elements listed in the SAB draft report under key findings and recommendations coincide perfectly with the public’s reaction to the EPA’s initial report back in June 2015.

“The SAB is concerned that the EPA had planned to but did not conduct various assessment, field studies and other research, and the SAB recommends that the EPA delineate these planned activities within the draft Assessment Report and discuss why they were not conducted. The lack of prospective case studies as originally planned by the EPA and described in the research 2011 Study Plan is a major limitation of the draft Assessment Report,” reads the SAB draft report.

The next concern SAB expresses is in terms of the clarity of and support for the EPA’s major findings, specifically that the Assessment Report drew national-level conclusions that are “ambiguous and appear inconsistent with the observations, data and levels of uncertainty” presented elsewhere in the report.

“Of particular concern in this regard is the high-level conclusion statement on page ES-6 that ‘we did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.’ 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’ and ‘widespread,’” reads the SAB draft report.

Other key findings include:

  • The need to better recognize and acknowledge the importance of local impacts. The SAB recommends that the EPA include and critically analyze the status, data on potential releases, and any available findings conducted in Dimock, Penn., Pavillion, Wy., and Parker County, Texas, where hydraulic fracturing activities are perceived by many members of the public to have caused significant local impacts to drinking water resources.
  • The EPA should provide more information regarding the extent or potential extent of the effects of chemical mixing processes from hydraulic fracturing operations to drinking water supplies. The agency should provide additional detail describing the extent and duration of the impacts of spilled liquids and releases of flowback and produced waters when they occur.
  • The agency did not conduct due diligence in its analysis of most likely exposure scenarios and hazards associated with hydraulic fracturing activities. To help prioritize future research and risk assessment efforts, the agency should identify the most likely exposure scenarios and hazards and obtain toxicity information relevant to the exposure scenarios.
  • The SAB recommends that the EPA describe best management practices used by industry regarding operations associated with each stage of hydraulic fracturing to better inform the public on available processes, methods and technologies that can minimize potential impacts to drinking water resources.
  • The agency should provide clearer information on certain wastewater hydraulic fracturing treatment process fundamentals, and the occurrence and removal of disinfection byproduct precursors.

The politics of it


Source: Gallup
Source: Gallup

As is increasingly the case, the hydraulic fracturing process—as well as its oil and green alternatives—finds itself squarely in the crosshairs of science and politics. 

As part of his 2017 budget, President Barack Obama laid out a plan for building a “21st Century Clean Transportation System” that reduces U.S. reliance on fossil fuels and cuts carbon pollution, among other agendas. The plan would be funded by a new fee on oil—a $10 per barrel fee paid by oil companies, which would be gradually phased in over five years.

A fact sheet provided by the White House says the fee will raise the funding necessary to make new investments.

“By placing a fee on oil, the President’s plan creates a clear incentive for private sector innovation to reduce our reliance on oil, and at the same time invests in clean energy technologies that will power our future,” the White House statement reads.

Of course, with the pending election, this is all subject to change.

At the March 6 Democratic debate, frontrunner Hillary Clinton said, “I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking can continue to take place” given all the restrictions that would be imposed if she were to take office.

Likewise, Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders called hydraulic fracturing a “national crisis” and said it cannot be performed safely.

Meanwhile, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump has said he embraces fracking as the future of natural gas, even telling the Associated Press that people in Pennsylvania are wealthy because they welcomed fracking in the state—as opposed to other states, like New York.

Fellow Republican Ted Cruz has also said he believes fracking is a safe practice that fuels U.S. jobs and economic growth.


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