Friday, July 13, 2012

Battle by Battalle about Fracking Science

There is a story in the Washington Times (and lots of other outlets) about the industry casting doubt on the validity of an ongoing, national EPA study to assess the link between fracking and ground water contamination. The article discusses a report commissioned from Battalle by the American Petroleum Institute and America's Natural Gas Alliance.

Here is the Executive Summary:
In fiscal year 2010, the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriation Conference Committee (Congress) “urged” the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 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 furthermore stated the study was 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.”
The American Petroleum Institute (API) and America’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA) requested Battelle Memorial Institute (Battelle), an independent non-profit, science and technology research and development organization, to perform a critical review of the EPA Plan to Study the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing on Drinking Water Resources (study plan). A multidisciplinary Battelle project team with expertise in oil and gas operations, engineering, geosciences, chemistry, modeling, quality assurance/quality control (QA/QC), statistics, toxicology, impact analysis and other relevant disciplines took part in this review. This effort also included reviews of EPA’s Quality Management Plan (QMP) and seventeen Quality Assurance Project Plans (QAPPs), as well as an assessment of the responsiveness of EPA’s approach to the Congressional request and the advice of the Scientific Advisory Board (SAB).
Battelle’s key findings regarding EPA’s study plan center on the following major themes:
Purpose—The stated purpose of the study reaches beyond the focused studying of the relationship between the process of hydraulic fracturing and drinking water as articulated in the conferees’ request. EPA has interpreted the intent of the congressional statement to require study of more peripheral elements related to generic oil and gas exploration and production, such as various upstream and downstream stages of the water lifecycle as well as standard site development and production activities. This broadening of the scope to “concerns common to all oil and gas production activities” was previously cautioned against by the SAB. EPA also elected to add a study element on Environmental Justice (EJ) that is not central to a scientific study of the drinking water effects of hydraulic fracturing, and by EPA policy required during efforts related to the development of an action. Lastly, given the scientific importance of the study, the effort likely meets the requirements of a “highly influential scientific assessment,” yet it is not designated as such. Such designation from the outset would have raised the level of rigor, funding, timing and transparency of all stages of the study.
Scoping—EPA interprets the congressional intent for this study broadly including many activities commonly associated with oil and gas development. While it is in EPA’s discretion to do so, the departure from conducting a study focused on the process of hydraulic fracturing, i.e., the vertical and horizontal fracturing of underground geologic formations to stimulate the extraction of gas (or oil) from unconventional reservoirs, adds complexity and risks as well as commitments competing for limited resources and time available for completing the study. This risks weakening and obscuring the significance of the research findings and their relevance with respect to the central question about the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water. While there can be merit in looking at both the hydraulic fracturing water and production well lifecycles, from a “cradle to grave” perspective, EPA has clearly identified the study boundary as the hydraulic fracturing water life cycle. Therefore, the study should be designed and implemented focusing only on this element of production, appropriately segregating potential environmental impacts associated with other phases. Specific to the hydraulic fracturing water lifecycle, environmental aspects such as upstream stages of water acquisition and downstream stages of production, water treatment and discharge are largely addressed by existing regulatory and permitting frameworks and established industry standards. The added complexity from including peripheral elements and factors that are well understood considerably raises the level of difficulty of achieving the requisite scientific rigor, considering the large number of interrelated study elements and research questions. Additionally, significant resources and time are being expended without materially advancing the study of the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water.
Study Design—The study will likely generate influential scientific information, yet EPA has not approached or designated it during the planning process as a “Highly Influential Scientific Assessment.” Such designation triggers rigorous standards for peer review, and by implication study design, data quality, transparency and execution. Even in the absence of such formal designation, there is no direct evidence documented in the study plan or in associated documents that EPA followed its quality policy in framing the study objectives and developing the study design, as asked for by Congress for “preparing the study in accordance with EPA quality assurance principles.” Additionally, ambitious schedules, driven by various 2012 reporting goals, may undermine the robustness of data collection and analysis as well as the soundness of scientific conclusions. Also, 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.
Case Studies—Congress requested a study “relying on best available science and independent sources of information.” It appears questionable, because of its genesis and design, whether the proposed case study element will satisfy this expectation and provide the scientifically defensible data and knowledge required in support of the fundamental research question, “can hydraulic fracturing impact drinking water resources?”The limited and possibly statistically biased pool from which the retrospective sites were drawn, and the lack of baseline information, are likely to limit the scientific validity and usefulness of case study findings and may result in incorrect or flawed conclusions. Two prospective sites cannot deliver the range of data required for scientifically rigorous treatment of all the research questions asked. These limitations need to be acknowledged and made more explicit.
Quality—There is insufficient alignment and nexus between the processes of developing the study and those for the development of the QA program that is to ensure systematic planning for design and implementation. In fact, the QMP does not provide guidance or requirements for the use of systematic planning. It also does not provide sufficient guidance to ensure all projects are: 1) conducted in a comprehensive, consistent, and coordinated manner and 2) linked to the overall program objectives defined in the study plan, even though this is specifically recognized as an essential requirement by EPA in the study plan. There is wide variability among the individual QA documents in terms of level of detail, consistency, guidance for documents and records and data management, as well as approaches for complying with QA and assessment requirements. And, there is no overarching roadmap laying out the interrelationships among the individual studies among QAPPs or how the intramural and extramural teams working on the individual projects will coordinate different elements of the project.
Collaboration and Transparency—Congress asked this 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.” EPA’s approach, in a number of areas, is not consistent with this congressional request. It is also not responsive to several SAB recommendations, such as “developing a balanced and collaborative advisory group of stakeholders representing a broad range of perspectives, and engaging with this stakeholder group throughout the research process.” Transparency is critical to successful EPA and industry collaboration. Specifically, given industry’s extensive experience with production of oil and gas from unconventional reservoirs, its unique expertise in the process of hydraulic fracturing and associated technologies, and its wealth of relevant data and information available to inform this effort, it is a weakness of the study plan, and its implementation, that significant industry collaboration is not envisioned. 

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