EPA Releases Plan to Study Fracking, Jumps the Gun

false startYesterday, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally released its plan with specifics for how it will conduct research into the question of whether or not hydraulic fracturing contaminates, or otherwise negatively impacts, drinking water supplies. A copy of the 190-page plan is embedded below.

The first (preliminary) results from the study are due in 2012, but a final report is not due until 2014. In order to meet those deadlines, the EPA has already begun collecting field data and water samples. The problem is, that data was collected before the the plan itself was completed—before the rules for how the data collection should be done were established. Industry groups rightly have asked EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson how data collection for the study can begin before the methodology, the “how we will do this” part of the study was complete. It immediately calls into question the veracity of the data itself.

The EPA has “jumped the gun” by starting before the methodology was released. GIGO—garbage in, garbage out.

The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday released the outlines of its long-awaited probe into whether hydraulic fracturing — the unconventional drilling technique that’s led to a boom in domestic natural gas production — is contaminating drinking-water supplies.

Investigators will try to determine the impact of large-scale water withdrawals, aboveground spills of drilling fluids, and the fracturing process itself on water quality and quantity in states where tens of thousands of wells have been drilled in recent years.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves the high-pressure injection of millions of gallons of water, along with sand and chemical additives, deep underground to extract natural gas trapped in shale rock. Energy companies have greatly expanded their use of fracking as they tap previously unreachable shale deposits, including the lucrative Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania and neighboring states.

The industry has long contended that fracking is safe, but environmentalists and some residents who live near drilling sites say it has poisoned groundwater. The EPA study, mandated by Congress last year, is the agency’s first look at the impact of fracking in shale deposits.

EPA will examine drilling sites in Pennsylvania, Colorado, Louisiana, North Dakota and Texas. The earliest results will be available in 2012.

Industry groups said Thursday they are confident the study will vindicate their position that fracking does not harm the environment or human health.

"The industry has taken the lead in working with state regulators to constantly improve operations, industry practices and guidelines as well as improve communications with local communities," said Stephanie Meadows, a senior policy adviser at the American Petroleum Institute.

The institute and five other industry groups recently complained to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson that agency staff began collecting field data and water samples months before the study plan was finished. The industry groups, in an Oct. 20 letter to Jackson, also questioned the study design itself and said it could undermine the credibility of the findings.

The EPA said it began work over the summer so that it could finish the study by 2014.*

*AP/Colorado Springs The Gazette (Nov 3, 2011) – EPA to probe gas drilling’s toll on drinking water

  • It does amaze you sometimes at the obvious double standard. one would have hoped as important as this matter is they could at least follow basic standard procedures of a scientific study. Like wait till you have the plan in place would have been a good way to start if you want an accurate result.

  • dtsturrock

    I am surprised that someone who would seem to want the results as quickly as possible would criticize their early start. Do you have some knowledge to the effect that their early data collection has violated their planned process in some significant way that cannot be later corrected?

    I am a huge advocate of pre-planning in my line of work. But you don’t always need to complete 100% of the planning before you start the work. Consider the simple example of planning a driving trip from PA to attend an important event in CA. While it would obviously be better to take time to plan the entire trip ahead of time, if I wait to find out exactly where the event will occur, I might miss it. But there is no reason I cannot start driving on a west bound interstate. I might be able to drive 10-20 hours until I have to decide on a city-based optimal route.

    Likewise I may not have all the study details yet, but if I know at least some of the data that will be collected and how, I can make significant progress while the rest of the plan is being finalized. The worst that can happen is that the last minute details might negate some of my early work and I would have to redo some of it. That is a price of trying to expedite a process. Or don’t you want this to get done quickly?

    Here is the double standard:
    When the NY people take extra time to complete a study one painful step at a time they are delaying and sandbagging and “should be sued”.
    But when the EPA takes some perfectly valid short cuts to expedite a study, they are “jumping the gun”. Should they be sued as well?

    Maybe you should just automatically sue anyone in search of the facts?

  • Because I’ve had a walk in the sunshine and am feeling great, I’ll ignore your snark and instead respond to the substance of what you’re saying. My criticism is that if they don’t follow their own stated methodology, the end results may be skewed. If you’re not consistent with the way you collect and handle the samples, they may be inaccurate. My sincere hope is that they methods they used to collect the samples are in line with the study, and if that’s the case, I’m a happy camper. Again, my criticism is that you behave in one way (with the data collection) but then construct a plan in a different way–that’s my concern.

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