Energy industry groups are criticizing EPA's study of the risks to drinking water posed by hydraulic fracturing as it prepares for an upcoming peer review of the research gathered so far, saying the agency needs to account for limitations in its research that the groups say could be used to set future regulatory policies.
"EPA has not appropriately acknowledged the limitations of its research to achieve the agency's stated goal of informing the public and providing decision makers at all levels with high-quality scientific knowledge that can be used in decision-making processes," American Exploration & Production Council, America's Natural Gas Alliance, American Petroleum Institute and Independent Petroleum Association of America say in an April 30 letter.
The industry comments are directed to the Science Advisory Board (SAB) peer review panel, which is poised to meet May 7-8 in Arlington, VA, to consider recent charge questions the agency crafted for the ad hoc panel, as well as an interim "progress report" document that EPA released late last year.
EPA's Office of Research and Development and Office of Water jointly launched the study last year, spurred by the request in the agency's 2010 appropriations bill. The study design consists of retrospective and prospective case studies aimed at examining actual fracking operations for potential impacts, literature reviews, toxicity assessments and scenario evaluations for the stages of the water lifecycle of fracking, including water acquisition, produced water composition, chemical mixing and wastewater treatment.
Fracking critics hope the study, slated for completion in 2014, will conclude that the controversial process endangers drinking water, lending support to legislative and administrative rulemaking efforts to strictly regulate the process. But industry and congressional Republicans have raised concerns about EPA's methodology for conducting the research, such as how the agency plans to ensure that technological advancements in the field of fracking are accurately reflected in the study. They are also concerned that the lengthy study process is leaving industry vulnerable to charges that the practice is not safe.
The study effort, which EPA launched in 2011, has long drawn criticism from industry and GOP lawmakers, including that the agency's study scope is broader than what Congress directed in a 2010 appropriations bill saying EPA should study the potential adverse effects of fracking on drinking water.
EPA's interim report, released Dec. 21, showed that the agency has scaled back some aspects of the study, such as plans to assess possible adverse effects of interactions between fracking fluids and naturally occurring materials in subsurface shale plays and conducting toxicity testing of fracking chemicals.
In their April 30 letter, the industry groups reiterate many of their earlier criticisms, though they also say the agency's charge questions lack clarity and that the study focuses too heavily on chemicals as opposed to well integrity, relies on flawed modeling methods, fails to account for varying geology and a host of other concerns.
For example, industry says that EPA's study plan to date does not appear to "have captured the breadth of" variations in produced water, or water from within the shale formation generated during the fracking process, that occur throughout different geological regions of the country. Noting that the U.S. Geological Survey has extensively studied produced water characteristics, industry groups say that the agency must ensure its analytical methods are sufficiently robust to account for variations in naturally occurring constituents, such as total dissolved solids, found in produced water from different formations.
The industry groups also say that the agency focuses too heavily on chemical mixing in its research, saying fracking fluid composition should "not be EPA's primary focus" because the research should take into account the rarity of unintentional environmental releases of fracking fluid due to state, local and industry requirements and best practices. "Not considering these facts will undoubtedly result in conclusions that are misrepresentative," the comments say.
Industry says that EPA need not study the composition of fracking fluids given that the majority of chemicals used in the mixtures are commonly used and well-studied substances found in household products.
Industry further warns that more benign chemicals in some cases may not be preferable alternatives, as they can reduce the efficacy of the fracking fluid and therefore necessitate more wells to be drilled or other negative environmental impacts.
The criticism is aimed at the charge question, "Given the data sets available, what information on fluid composition, factors affecting composition, and/or trends in composition of hydraulic fracturing fluids may be most useful for identifying potential impacts to drinking water resources across the United States?"
The groups also take issue with EPA's charge questions for the panel, which ask advisers to identify the most significant water quality characteristics that should be addressed in determining potential impacts from water use in fracking. The industry letter says that it is unclear how water quantity impacts will be attributed to oil and gas operations.
EPA should instead compare water use in fracking to water use in other industry sectors, the groups say, arguing that since water acquisition is not unique to hydraulic fracturing, any water quality impacts associated with acquisition would not be unique to hydraulic fracturing. "Therefore, no water quality characteristic can be considered specifically or arbitrarily attributed to water acquisition associated with hydraulic fracturing."
And industry also urges EPA to reconsider its modeling approaches outlined in the charge questions and interim report, which delineate the agency's plans to study whether the fracking injections themselves pose subsurface risks to drinking water aquifers.
"Modeling the subsurface is inherently an extremely complex problem," industry says in the comments.
The groups say that EPA must explain to peer reviewers -- and in the final study report -- the limitations of its modeling approach, particularly because all of the presented modeling scenarios involve assumptions that multiple barriers protecting groundwater would fail. "The most valuable scenarios -- no hydraulic fracturing and no failures - are missing from this research," the comments say. "Based on publicly available information regarding this research effort, the usefulness of the current modeling effort is limited." -- Bridget DiCosmo