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Documents Reveal EPA's National Fracking Study Halted by Industry Pressure

03/05/2015 11:34 am ET | Updated May 05, 2015

Fracking companies had extensive influence over a critical study of the groundwater impacts of fracking, according to insider documents released by Greenpeace.

In 2010, amidst growing worries about the environmental impacts of fracking, Congress compelled the EPA to conduct a study. The study was supposed to be a definitive look at the issue, exploring if and how fracking contaminates groundwater supplies. That study was supposed to be released in 2012 but has been delayed until 2016.

Documents released as part of a Greenpeace investigation have found that the EPA was forced to rely on shale companies like Chesapeake Energy for data, funding, and access to fracking sites. The shale industry in turn constrained the study, limiting what could be studied and when. These constraints led to the eventual cancellation of perhaps the most important part of the study, the "prospective" section.

Industry Actions Lead to the Cancellation of Science

When the EPA's study was first conceptualized, it was supposed to include retrospective and prospective portions. The retrospective pieces would examine data collected by the industry in the past. The prospective section was where new scientific studies would be done. The prospective studies were supposed to take baseline data from groundwater in areas that had not yet been drilled and compare them with samples taken after drilling and fracking had occurred. This type of prospective study, which starts before fracking, has never been done before and represented a major advance in the scientific study of fracking's impacts.

The prospective portions would be the most reliable way to determine whether oil and gas development contaminates surface water and nearby aquifers. One EPA scientist told Inside Climate News, "The single most important thing you could do is prospective studies."

However, the EPA was reliant on two shale companies for access to areas that had not yet been fracked, an arrangement that led to the full cancellation of the entire prospective section of the EPA's study.

Documents obtained by Greenpeace show that Chesapeake Energy, one of the companies that initially agreed to cooperate with the EPA on the prospective portions of the study, actually drilled wells at their prospective study site before the EPA was able to collect baseline data. This effectively torpedoed the entire project, and attempts at replacing the location, originally in Louisiana, with one in Oklahoma also ended in failure.

The correspondence between Chesapeake and the EPA includes a draft press release announcing the cancellation of the prospective study in Louisiana conducted with Chesapeake. The release blames the cancellation on "scheduling conflicts," resulting in Chesapeake drilling the well before baseline data could be collected. The press release was jointly edited by the EPA and Chesapeake but never released to the public. The EPA would never publicly announce the cancellation of the prospective study, and only after increased pressure from Greenpeace did they reference its cancellation deep on the study's website.

The second prospective study, to be conducted with Range Resources, has also been cancelled. The cancellation of the prospective pieces has had a major impact on the usefulness of the study.

"We won't know anything more in terms of real data than we did five years ago," said Geoffrey Thyne, a geochemist and a member of the EPA's 2011 Science Advisory Board, a group of independent scientists who reviewed the draft plan of the study.

Water Supply Problems

Kids in Pennsylvania hold tap water contaminated by nearby shale drilling

Delay and Obstruct: Study Attacked on All Sides by Industry

The documents reveal a number of instances where the fracking industry delayed and obstructed the EPA's attempts to study fracking. The industry waged an attack from every side -- political, scientific, and procedural.

As Sharon Kelly writes for Desmog, "Watered-down federal research weakens the possibility for future regulations. It also has been used to justify loopholes in federal environmental laws for the oil and gas industry." Kelly points out the three-step process that various industries have employed to impact unwanted studies:

Step one: using a rhetoric of collaboration and "non-adversarial" relationships, the industry effectively establishes inside access to what otherwise should be an independent research process. This allows the industry to meddle with study methodologies, pick and chose its own favored experts, and distort findings.

Step two: through inside access, the industry affords itself the authority to contest, after the fact, any findings that it is not able to water down on the front end.

Step three: this access also allows industry the ability to impose infeasible methodological demands on the agency, slowing the process to a crawl and at times forcing the agency to give up trying to get answers to certain key questions.

Fracking for natural gas in Pennsylvania.

This Pennsylvania resident's water changed color and taste after a fracked well was placed near her property.

Here is a list of findings from the documents:

  • Chesapeake only allowed for baseline sampling after the fracking wells had initially been drilled, rather than beforehand, as EPA scientists preferred. In the absence of baseline data from before drilling, the industry can claim that contaminates existed there before their drills pierced the aquifer. The industry has claimed this in multiple cases where groundwater impacts from fracking have occurred.
  • Chesapeake demanded the EPA reduce the depth of their study from 300 to 150 feet and demanded that the EPA focus solely on the fracking stage, not drilling, completion, or other stages where contamination can occur.
  • API and ANGA tried to have their own consultants shadow the EPA's scientists during the study. This proved to be distracting to the scientists conducting the study.
  • At the same time, Chesapeake and Range, the two companies that were supposed to be cooperating with the EPA on the prospective study, were attacking other EPA studies of water contamination cases. While initially finding evidence of contamination from Chesapeake Energy wells in Pennsylvania and Range Resources wells in Texas, the EPA never pursued any regulatory action.
  • Chesapeake was, as one EPA email put it, "part of the team here" when it came to the water study.
  • The inspector general of the EPA tried to investigate "the EPA's and states' ability to manage potential threats to water resources from hydraulic fracturing." In response, pro-fracking congressional representatives demanded that the investigation "immediately end."

As Neela Banerjee writes in Inside Climate News:

The industry balked at the scope of the study and sowed doubts about the EPA's ability to deliver definitive findings. In addition, concerns about the safety of drinking water conflicted with the Obama administration's need to spur the economy out of recession while expanding domestic energy production.

A Chesapeake drilling site warns of water contamination

A Chesapeake drilling site warns of water contamination

Does Fracking Contaminate Water Supplies?

Studies conducted since the EPA's study began have found evidence that fracking affects groundwater supplies.

A 2013 Duke University study found that within a kilometer of fracking wells, methane concentration in drinking-water wells was six times higher than in the surrounding area.  A University of Texas-Arlington study from 2013 found elevated levels of arsenic and heavy metals in groundwater near fracking sites in Texas' Barnett Shale.

See Greenpeace's fracking page for a list of groundwater contamination incidents.

Read more on the EPA's hydrofracking water study on Inside Climate News and DesmogBlog.