US House subcommittees hear testimony on EPA hydraulic fracturing studies

On July 24, 2013, the Energy and Environment Subcommittees of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Science, Space and Technology held a joint hearing on “Lessons Learned: EPA’s Investigations of Hydraulic Fracturing.”

The hearing centered on questions about the EPA’s scientific processes for its study on the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources (final report due in 2014) and on questions raised about prior EPA studies of alleged water contamination in three locations (Pavillion WY, Parker County TX, and Dimock PA) in which the EPA, after receiving additional data, retreated from its original conclusions connecting hydraulic fracturing with contaminated groundwater.

In response to GOP subcommittee members’ expressed concerns about whether the EPA can complete an unbiased study, EPA representatives assured the members of Congress that the it is performing “a rigorous study” using “all proper procedures” to determine whether drinking water resources are being contaminated.

According to the EPA, strict quality assurance requirements are being followed and scientific integrity is being maintained during the peer review process.

Below is a brief summary of some of the witness testimony and comments from members of Congress.

Chris Stewart (R-Utah): “EPA’s recent announcement that it is walking away from its attempt to link hydraulic fracturing to groundwater issues in Pavillion, Wyoming is the most recent example of the agency employing a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ policy toward unconventional oil and gas production… [W]e need to be vigilant in insuring that the Agency does not put the regulatory cart before the scientific horse.”

Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.): The report on contaminated groundwater in Pavillion, Wyoming “was so riddled with mistakes in well construction, errors in sampling techniques, and failures to follow protocol that even the USGS…could not replicate the results.” As for the current study being done, “[t]he study design is flawed and indicative of the Agency’s characteristic outcome-drive approach to hydraulic fracturing, where achieving desired conclusions takes precedent over basing those conclusions on the best available science.”

Lamar Smith (R-Texas): “[T]he EPA has failed to include a risk assessment as part of this study… The Agency should base its work on sound science rather than regulatory ambition.”

Suzanne Bonamici (D-Oregon) expressed her concern that the oil and gas “industry has a history of adopting environmental measures only after the drop of a [state or federal] regulatory gavel.”

Fred S. Hauchman, Ph.D., Director, Office of Science Policy, Office of Research and Development, U.S. EPA, assured the subcommittee that the study was being made in accordance with the Agency’s Scientific Integrity Policy and the six principles set out by Congress in requesting the study. These principles are: (1) use the best available science, (2) incorporate independent sources of information, (3) follow rigorous quality assurance procedures, (4) engage stakeholders at every level, (5) conduct the study transparently, and (6) commit to a thorough peer review. “This is not a quantitative risk analysis… We are completing a thorough analysis of available” information which is “highly desirable and useful.” He indicated that, while the study will provide context for potential risks, it will not set out a specific number or percentage nor will it include recommendations which are not within the scope of the study.

John C. Rogers, Associate Director of The Division of Oil, Gas and Mining (DOGM) for the State of Utah, stated that “[i]n all of the historical records of DOGM, there has never been a verified case of hydraulic fracturing causing or contributing to contamination of water resources.”

Brian Rahm, Ph.D., New York State Water Resources Institute, Cornell University, indicated that there are several lessons to be learned from the EPA’s Pavillion, Wyoming study: (1) the design and scope of gas development research needs to be carefully thought out, adhered to, and clearly communicated; (2) regional differences, such as geology and best practices, matter; (3) critical issues for consideration include well integrity (casing and cementing), management of waste materials, and disclosure of chemicals; and (4) oversight is required for construction of gas and water wells in formations that contain aquifers. Dr. Rahm also testified that these EPA studies cannot provide a general risk assessment of groundwater contamination because each study addresses specific complaints under specific geological and regulatory conditions. To make a general assessment requires data on a regional or national scale, not just from locations where complaints have been lodged or groundwater contamination has occurred. “You need to know when things go right” as well as what goes wrong to make a valid assessment. Because local characteristics vary, Dr. Rahm is in favor of regulation by the states.