Former Bush EPA Official Confirms 2004 EPA Fracking Study Was Misused

Ben Grumbles, former assistant Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator and head of the agency’s Office of Water, revealed last week that the conclusions from a 2004 EPA report [pdf] discussing the safety of hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. fracking) have been exaggerated for years.

In 2004, after a four-year study examining the environmental and safety implications from fracking into coal bed methane reserves, the agency determined that although fracking may release “potentially hazardous chemicals into” drinking water, the drilling process poses “little or no threat” and “does not justify additional study at this time.”

Since 2004, that study has been used as fodder by politicians and the gas industry to justify a massive fracking boom.

Grumbles is now President of the Clean Water America Alliance (a group with no formal position on fracking). He explains [pdf] that the 2004 report did not deem all fracking to be safe. Specifically, the EPA:

…“never intended for the report to be interpreted as a perpetual clean bill of health for fracking or to justify a broad statutory exemption from any future regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.”

A lot has happened since 2005 and, in my view, it makes sense to review the Safe Drinking Water Act landscape as well as the relevance of Clean Water Act programs. Political and legal battles have been growing in state and federal courts and agencies, with particular attention to fracking for shale gas, which is different from fracking for coal bed methane, the primary subject of EPA’s 2004 report.”

This is not the first time that Grumbles has spoken out against industry’s contention that the agency report provided blanket cover to protect frackers from public oversight. In June 2009 and March 2011 interviews with ProPublica he responded to the often-cited claim that fracking received a “clean bill of health” from the EPA:

When we got the report, it was a snapshot in time. It was a thorough review describing the issues. Whether it's hydraulic fracturing or any other type of practice that can have an impact on the environment, one single report shouldn't be the basis for a perpetual, never-ending policy decision.”

“It wasn't meant to be a bill of health saying 'well, this practice is fine. Exempt it in all respects from any regulation.' I'm sure that wasn't the intent of the panel of experts, and EPA never viewed it that way. That's one reason why we were urging Congress to say 'look, if you are going to issue an exemption, ensure that it is not perpetual.'”

Unfortunately, dirty energy advocates in Congress and the gas industry refer to the study time and again in order to rationalize destructive fracking, regardless of the serious environmental, health and safety consequences.

ProPublica continues to question the scientific merit of that 2004 report and in 2008 drew attention to the fact that some EPA staff engaged in that study had negotiated a deal with Halliburton. Because of the role former U.S. Vice President and Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney played in supporting the exemption, it is known as the “Halliburton Loophole.”

After the report was released, longtime EPA scientist Weston Wilson wrote [pdf] to Colorado representatives stating that “based on available science and literature, EPA’s conclusions are unsupportable.” He also identified that five out of seven members of the review panel had conflicts of interest and “may benefit from EPA’s decision not to conduct further investigation or impose regulatory conditions.”

Despite Grumbles’ clarifying statement, the gas industry continues to trumpet the EPA study as proof that there was a scientific basis for exempting fracking from the Underground Injection Control provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act, included in the Cheney-driven 2005 Energy Policy Act.

Read DeSmogBlog’s Special Report: Fracking The Future: How Unconventional Gas Threatens Our Water, Health, and Climate