Too much science

Aug. 22, 2016
While science has a rightful place in policy-making, too much science can do more harm than good.

While science has a rightful place in policy-making, too much science can do more harm than good.

A scientific panel of the US Environmental Protection Agency wants the agency to revisit a preliminary finding of June 2015 that hydraulic fracturing doesn't systemically threaten drinking-water supplies. On Aug. 11, the 30-member Hydraulic Fracturing Research Panel of EPA's Science Advisory Board (SAB) issued a report expressing "particular concern" about an assessment welcomed by the oil and gas industry and disparaged by environmental interest groups. The new report will strengthen attacks against well-completion technology responsible for extending the horizons of oil and gas supply.

Delay or reversal

If nothing else, the report will delay EPA's final determination on hydraulic fracturing's effect on drinking water. It fills 180 pages with suggestions for rewriting, further analysis, and more gathering of data. The agency will need time if it follows the advice. Meanwhile, fracing opponents will tout the SAB report, which addresses procedure more than science, as a rejection of EPA's initial determination. For them, the only better outcome would be outright reversal of the preliminary finding.

With the salient point of its report, the SAB betrays a disposition toward the more conclusive of those alternatives. It challenges this statement from EPA's preliminary finding: "We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States." The problem? "The SAB finds that the EPA did not support quantitatively its conclusion about lack of evidence for widespread, systemic impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources and did not clearly describe the system(s) of interest (e.g., groundwater, surface water), the scale of impacts (i.e., local or regional), nor the definitions of 'systemic' and 'widespread.'"

So EPA didn't measure what it couldn't find. The rest is the nitpicking of a group straining to find points for objection. Who needs definitions for "systemic" and "widespread?" In the rarefied world of postgraduate science, experts argue over such things. In politics, subtleties don't matter. The SAB shows it's concerned with politics as much as science when it writes, "The SAB observes that the statement has been interpreted by readers and members of the public in many different ways." Translation: Environmentalists don't like the preliminary finding.

To make things right, all EPA must do is the impossible. "The SAB concludes that if the EPA retains this conclusion, the EPA should provide quantitative analysis that supports its conclusion that hydraulic fracturing has not led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources." This amounts to proving a negative. It can't be done.

Four members of the advisory panel dissented. In an appendix to the SAB report they argue that the EPA's original finding "is accurate, clear, concise, unambiguous, and supportable with the facts EPA has reviewed." They're right. EPA should stand by the conclusion it clearly expressed last year.

Extremists want to stop hydraulic fracturing. They know the operation expands supplies of hydrocarbon energy and undermines economics of the renewable energy they promote. So they invented the systemic threat to drinking water.

Does frac fluid sometimes spill? Of course. Do spills occur more frequently than before? Probably. Operators frac wells more frequently and massively than they did before the method joined horizontal drilling to allow development of tight reservoirs. In any mechanical process, accidents, unfortunately, happen.

But if a systemic threat loomed, water resources would have succumbed widely to the hydraulic fracturing that has occurred for decades. That they have not done so is experience not requiring validation from experts wondering what "systemic" means.

No threat

It was the Obama administration's EPA that found no systemic threat to drinking water. The agency is closer to environmental groups and more eager to regulate fossil energy than ever. If it says it didn't find a threat from hydraulic fracturing, it didn't find a threat.

Sometimes, indeed, science obscures more than enlightens. When that happens, the important question is why.