The Environmental Protection Agency’s multi-year investigation of the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water supplies is overbroad, underfunded and too ambitious, according to an analysis commissioned by two energy industry trade groups that was released Tuesday.
The assessment by the Battelle Memorial Institute — which was funded by the American Petroleum Institute and America’s Natural Gas Alliance — concludes that the design of EPA’s study has strayed far from what lawmakers intended when they first ordered the EPA to investigate the issue two years ago.
Hydraulic fracturing involves pumping mixtures of sand, chemicals and water underground to release natural gas and oil from dense rock formations. Conservationists have warned that the fracturing chemicals can be spilled above ground and that natural gas can escape from poorly designed wells to contaminate nearby drinking water supplies.
The EPA study goes beyond analyzing what happens with drinking water from the hydraulic fracturing process itself. The agency also is set to evaluate issues related to the acquisition of water before wells are fractured and how wastewater from those jobs is treated and disposed.
That’s simply too broad, according to Bernhard Metzger, vice president of the Battelle Memorial Institute, who briefed reporters on the report Tuesday morning. As a result, the EPA’s probe of the central issues related to hydraulic fracturing and water could be weakened, as precious resources go to other aspects of the investigation.
The EPA’s interpretation of the study scope “adds complexity and risks as well as commitments competing for limited resources and time available for completing the study,” Battelle said in its report. “The risk weakening and obscuring the significance of the research findings and their relevance with respect to the central question about the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water.”
Metzger also complained that the EPA is in some cases relying on data from as far back as 2006, which could be obsolete by the time the final report is expected to be issued, in 2014.
EPA officials, including Administrator Lisa Jackson, have repeatedly defended the study design.
“EPA designed and is conducting the study to meet the highest standards of scientific rigor, data quality and peer review,” according to a statement from the agency Tuesday. “EPA has, in fact, designated the study as a Highly Influential Scientific Assessment -– and as part of this process EPA will ensure that stakeholders, including industry, are actively involved at all stages of the study.”
The designation of “highly influential scientific assessment” could trigger tougher standards for peer review and transparency. Already, the public was able to weigh in on EPA’s study plan, which was also vetted by the agency’s Science Advisory Board.
But Metzger criticized the way the EPA winnowed down a list of potential study sites — ultimately to seven, from an initial pool of four dozen offered by the Science Advisory Board. It was not fully clear how those sites were selected, he said.
Stephanie Meadows, API’s upstream senior policy adviser, told reporters that Battelle’s analysis “reinforces many of our previously stated concerns and raises new ones.”
She said that API didn’t want EPA to halt its investigation — just improve its design.
“A robust, thorough, careful study is important because it has the potential to affect the future course of shale energy development, which has enormous potential for improving our energy security and economy for decades to come,” Meadows said.
ANGA and API representatives said the EPA study would benefit from more collaboration with industry.
But environmental advocates who have been critical of hydraulic fracturing operations said that could give too much leverage to energy companies with a stake in the outcome.
“They are trying to write their own rule book,” said Kate Sinding, with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This latest attempt to play politics with a congressionally required EPA study underscores the critical need for sufficient safeguards — free from industry manipulation — to protect our basic rights to clean water, clean air and our health.”