The riots, rage, and ruin that have spread throughout the Middle East over the past few days emphasize the urgency of opening up and bringing online America’s vast resources—yet, as Congressman Pete Olson (R-TX) states: “The EPA is the biggest obstacle to energy independence.”
Olson’s comment specifically addressed the Hydraulic Fracturing Study requested by Congress as a part of the FY 2010 appropriations bill, which states:
“The conferees urge the Agency to carry out a study on the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water, using a credible approach that relies on the best available science, as well as independent sources of information. The conferees expect the study to be conducted through a transparent, peer-reviewed process that will ensure the validity and accuracy of the data. The Agency shall consult with other Federal agencies as well as appropriate State and interstate regulatory agencies in carrying out the study, which should be prepared in accordance with the Agency's quality assurance principles.”
A study “on the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water” sounds like a great idea. No one wants their drinking water filled with toxic elements, and, if the EPA followed the mandate, a work of global importance could result. American private enterprise and initiative has lead the world in developing and implementing horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques that are safe and are uniquely responsible for totally transforming the energy landscape—making previously unrecoverable resources, recoverable. Therefore, the final study from the EPA has worldwide implications for oil and natural gas supplies. It must be done right.
Instead of moving forward with a “Hydraulic Fracturing Study” as requested by Congress, the EPA has done what is characteristic of this administration; they’ve blown it out of proportion—making it something bigger, requiring additional personnel, and creating more management, at greater expense. Final results are not due until 2014—four years after Congress requested a simple study. Lisa Jackson’s EPA has expanded the study’s scope to encompass numerous peripheral elements related to oil and gas exploration and production activities; a full lifecycle analysis of everything remotely associated with unconventional recovery.
Congress requested a report based on “best available science,” not opinion, yet the EPA has included items such as “environmental justice”—which has nothing to do with science, and “discharges to publicly owned water treatment plants”—which are no longer a part of the hydraulic fracturing process.
The additional elements exponentially exacerbate the study’s potential complications.
Meanwhile, America could be undergoing a robust development of our resources. Instead, as Congressman Mike Conaway (R-TX) explained, “Industry is holding back because it is not sure what the regulatory future holds.” He called the study’s evolution beyond the scope of what was requested: “mission creep.” Until a definitive answer on “the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water” is produced, a constant cloud of legal threat hangs over possible development, and potential jobs, such as in New York’s Marcellus Shale, are deferred.
These concerns, plus many others, prompted industry to independently engage, at their own expense, Battelle Memorial Institute to conduct a collaborative, side-by-side study with the EPA. Congressman Andy Harris (R-MD), Chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, says that Battelle is “a highly respected independent science and technology organization.” (It is important to note that Battelle’s business is heavily dependent on government contracts, so accepting the responsibility of doing a collaborative study held risks for the company—coming out with a different result from that of the EPA could mean the loss of future contracts. Additionally, they do a lot of work with the EPA, so their opinions should be trusted by the EPA.) Despite the EPA’s rejection of industry’s offer, Battelle moved forward with a scientific review of the EPA’s study plan to ensure that the EPA is taking a rigorous and adequate approach, as quality cannot be built into the back end of a science-based project.
Battelle’s report is complete. On Thursday, Battelle’s team provided a briefing on Capitol Hill that was attended by more than 30 Representatives and/or staffers from the Natural Gas and Marcellus Shale Caucuses. Numerous concerns were presented. The EPA’s study plan reflects a deadly combination of arrogance and incompetence.
Hydraulic Fracturing is a highly technical process that has evolved since its initial use more than 60 years ago—continuously undergoing improvements. Hundreds of thousands of wells have been drilled. The expertise and experience lies within the industry, yet the EPA has specially rejected industry’s attempts to collaborate—despite the fact that the original mandate requires: “a transparent, peer-reviewed process that will ensure the validity and accuracy of the data.” In a letter to the EPA, Marty Durbin, Executive Vice President, American Petroleum Institute (API), says: “We have repeatedly offered the expertise of our members to both the agency and the Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) peer review process and, unfortunately, have been disappointed by the lack of follow through and acceptance.” Battelle’s report states: “Industry collaboration is not envisioned.”
Additionally, the requirements, published in the Federal Register calling for nominations, for the SAB, are set so that they specifically exclude experts from industry. “Selection criteria” includes “absence of financial conflicts of interest.” The call for SAB nominations continues: “government officials” will “determine whether there is a statutory conflict between a person’s public responsibilities and private interests and activities, or the appearance of a lack of impartiality.” Presumably those from academia and NGO’s would be acceptable. However, as the API letter points out, the “EPA should recognize that most individuals nominating themselves for potential SAB membership have some financial stake in the business—academics seek grants, NGOs seek donations, regulators seek programmatic funding, consultants seek contracts from government, as well as industry.”
Industry representatives with direct history of working in the modern oil and gas industry have a long record of valuable, unbiased participation in many other SAB committees and panels, yet for this watershed study, they have been excluded.
Additionally, the Congressional study request calls for consultation “with other Federal agencies as well as appropriate State and interstate regulatory agencies.” To date, there is no evidence of working with Pennsylvania, Texas, Colorado—or any other state with extensive hydraulic fracturing experience. Numerous studies have been done, but the EPA doesn’t appear to be incorporating their discoveries. For example, in August 2011, the Groundwater Protection Council published its own study of “state determinations regarding causes of groundwater contamination resulting from oil and gas industry E&P activities,” examining nearly 400 contamination incidents over 25 years in Ohio and Texas, and concluding that “[n]either state has documented a single occurrence of groundwater pollution during site preparation or well stimulation.”
Obviously, the arrogance of the EPA believes they know best and they don’t want input from anyone who might disagree with their preconceived bias.
According to Battelle’s report, the EPA has a rigorous Data Quality Assessment process established for internal studies, but is not using it when setting up this study—which can impact the data quality and scientific rigor. If strict standards are not met, the entire report can be brought into question, as was the case with the Pavillion, Wyoming, study released a year ago. The results must be defensible to achieve the study’s goals.
The sites selected for study show a bias with the potential to skew the data and therefore the study. Instead of using a representative sampling of well sites from the hundreds of thousands of wells that have been drilled, the EPA has chosen to focus on only seven sites—a statistically insignificant number. Of the seven, five have known contamination problems, but no baseline data. Therefore, there is no way to tell whether the complaints are in any way related to hydraulic fracturing or to any specific thing. There are known examples of naturally occurring drinking water contamination—as was found with the widely publicized Dimock, Pennsylvania, case. The five retrospective sites are the subject of complaints by individuals who may now be stakeholders in potentially lucrative litigation against operators. The concern is that the “it has problems, so let’s study it to see if it has problems” approach will limit the scientific validity and usefulness of case study findings. At Thursday’s briefing, the limited sampling was likened to using five traffic accidents in some parts of America to draw conclusions about how to construct and regulate traffic and road safety in all of the country to avoid future accidents.
Instead, the study should focus more heavily on prospective sites where baseline data is gathered before drilling and before the use of hydraulic fracturing. The Battelle report states: “Two prospective sites cannot deliver the range of data required for scientifically rigorous treatment of all the research questions asked.”
Focusing primarily on sites with known issues also ignores the current state of the technology. Chemicals used now are very different from what was used five years ago. Analysis from these sites will be virtually useless in making a meaningful recommendation regarding current or future hydraulic fracturing activities. Battelle’s report points out that “the site data collected from the companies are from 2006-2010, and the final report will be in 2014. The changes occurring at these sites in the intervening years will likely render the data obsolete for purposes of the study.”
All of this may seem of little relevance to the person struggling to fill up their tank at today’s high gasoline prices. However, it is of utmost importance.
All sides benefit from a study that can withstand intense scrutiny. If there are foundational problems and the overall study results prove that hydraulic fracturing is safe and doesn’t contaminate drinking water, as the industry believes they will, the environmentalists, who oppose hydraulic fracturing, will appeal it. If the reverse is proven, industry will seek an appeal. In either case, appeals will delay the much-needed robust development of American resources—not to mention the waste of time and taxpayer dollars spent on the study.
If the events that have erupted in the Middle East over the past few days show us anything, it is that the US dependence on Middle Eastern oil must come to an expeditious end. With America’s new-found oil and gas reserves, recovered through hydraulic fracturing, we now know that energy independence is possible, if, as Congressman Olson told me, “We rein in the EPA.”