In June 2015, EPA released a draft assessment of the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing (HF) for oil and gas on drinking water resources. This draft assessment was then presented to EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) to provide scientific feedback to EPA administrator Gina McCarthy. The SAB created an ad-hoc subcommittee on HF research to focus on the review and report to the full committee. The HF subcommittee held several meetings and conference calls over the course of six months to discuss the report, which culminated in a draft review of EPA’s report by the HF subcommittee that was released in April, 2016.
Taking the next step in this lengthy process, in June 2016, the full SAB held a day and a half of meetings to review the HF subcommittee’s April 2016 draft report. The majority of the meeting time was provided to allow stakeholders an additional opportunity to express their views on the topline conclusion of EPA’s draft assessment - that the hydraulic fracturing process has caused no widespread contamination to water resources. These comments were relatively balanced between citizens, the environmental community, and industry. Industry commenters included the American Petroleum Institute, Energy in Depth, ExxonMobil Upstream Research Company, Newfield Exploration, Halliburton Energy Services, the Virginia Oil and Gas Association, the American Exploration and Production Council, Range Resources, Anadarko, and the Domestic Energy Producers Alliance.
After the stakeholder comments were concluded, members of the SAB provided feedback on the draft comments from the HF subcommittee. Dr, Dzombak, Chairman of the HF subcommittee outlined all of the activities that his group had taken on to respond to the charge questions in EPA’s draft assessment and stressed that conclusions reached by his panel were thoroughly vetted. He also noted that the HF subcommittee included recommendations for issues that should be considered for longer term research. After Dr. Dzombak’s presentation, the SAB panel, including four lead reviewers, provided their feedback on the HF subcommittee’s draft report. All of the reviewers agreed that the HF panel did a concise job of assessing the charge questions originally posed by EPA and that the conclusions and recommendations were supported by the draft review. Many of the reviewers also agreed that EPA’s top line conclusion in its draft assessment, which states that hydraulic fracturing does not cause widespread impacts to drinking water needs to be clarified, so the statement can be more useful and have greater context. Dr. Gina Solomon, one of the lead reviewers, said that she thought that the HF subcommittee’s draft report was very repetitious in several places and that she would like to see the number of recommendations made in the draft narrowed down to focus on top priorities.
After all the SAB reviewers provided their feedback, the panel unanimously voted to work with Dr. Dzombak to make changes to the HF subcommittee’s draft. The SAB also had the option to send the draft report formally back the HF subcommittee, which would have meant that the HF subcommittee would have had to start the entire peer review process over. Although EPA staff had said this spring that they were hoping to finish the assessment by the end of 2016, it is unclear at this point if they will be able to do so within that timeframe.