On December 4, 2015, the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) made public its first formal comments on EPA’s June 2015 hydraulic fracturing study report (“Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources,” External Review Draft, EPA/600/R-15/047). Specifically, the SAB issued “Preliminary Summary Responses to Charge Questions from Members of the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) Hydraulic Fracturing Research Advisory Panel.” These preliminary responses are bullet-styled answers to the eight “charge questions” that were posed by EPA to its SAB about the draft hydraulic fracturing study report.
Charge Question 4 asks SAB the following specific questions, among others: “Are the major findings concerning well injection fully supported by the information and data presented in the assessment? Do these major findings identify the potential impacts to drinking water resources due to this stage of the hydraulic fracturing water cycle? Are the factors affecting the frequency or severity of any impacts described to the extent possible and fully supported?”
In its preliminary responses, the SAB did not pull punches in criticizing EPA’s work: “In general, the conclusions regarding how many wells are leaking or not are not well supported. … It is not clear from the chapter, nor from the summary of the data at the end of the chapter, that either the frequency or the severity have been adequately addressed, nor dismissed as unable to assess such impact or severity. The anecdotal data is not statistical in nature, and therefore conclusions as to severity and true risk are difficult to assess. The reader is left to wonder if anything can happen anywhere at any time.”
It seems unlikely that the way in which EPA’s hydraulic fracturing study has been conducted to date will enable the oil and gas industry and the environmentalist community to come to a shared view about risks associated with hydraulic fracturing and how to best mitigate them.