Hydraulic Fracturing News: EPA's Pavillion Report Will Receive Peer Review
A controversial EPA draft report regarding the possibility that hydraulic fracturing has affected groundwater near Pavillion, Wyoming finally will be receiving peer review.
EPA released the draft report to the public last month. In it, the EPA discusses its study of groundwater in the vicinity of Pavillion and states the Agency's conclusion that hydraulic fracturing likely contributed to groundwater contamination near Pavillion. The draft report generated substantial attention because, if the EPA's conclusions hold up, the report apparently would provide the first documentation of an instance in which hydraulic fracturing has affected groundwater. The draft report also became controversial because many people raised significant questions about various aspects of the methodology used by the EPA in its Pavillion study and about the reasoning that went into the EPA's conclusions (see Oil & Gas Law Brief posts dated December 12 and December 26, 2011).
In addition, several people criticized the EPA for releasing the draft report before subjecting it to peer review. As noted on the EPA's own website, the Office of Management and Budget issued a bulletin to federal agencies in 2004 directing that "important scientific information shall be peer reviewed by qualified specialists before it is disseminated by the federal government." The bulletin explains that, "Peer review is one of the most important procedures used to ensure that the quality of published information meets the standards of the scientific and technical community." The peer review process "can filter out biases" and "clarify assumptions." Further, the process "may encourage authors to more fully acknowledge limitations and uncertainties."
The EPA did not subject its draft report to peer review before releasing it to the public. In a statement to the press announcing release of the draft report, the EPA suggested, however, that the draft report would be subjected to peer review later. The press statement did not discuss the nature or timing of the peer review process.
The EPA has now provided some detail on an upcoming peer review of the Agency's Pavillion study and draft report. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson explained in a recent letter to Wyoming Governor Matthew Mead that the EPA plans to convene a panel of five to seven experts with expertise in relevant scientific and engineering disciplines to meet publicly and consider "charge questions" that will be posed to them regarding the Pavillion study. The EPA will draft a proposed "charge" and solicit feedback regarding the draft from interested parties. The expert panel will be selected by an EPA contractor, based on public nominations received during a 30-day nominating process. The EPA has published a Federal Register notice soliciting nominations.
Jackson's recent letter to Mead defends the EPA's conclusions, but notably, Jackson also states that the "causal link" between contamination and "fracturing has not been demonstrated conclusively" at Pavillion. Further, in an apparent reference to the fact that hydraulic fracturing was performed at much shallower depths at Pavillion than in most shale formations, Jackson stated that the EPA's Pavillion "analysis is limited to the particular geologic conditions in the Pavillion gas field and should not be applied to fracturing in other geologic settings."
The Agency made a similar observation in its press release announcing the release of the EPA's draft report. That press release states that the fracturing near Pavillion was being performed at shallow depths, and that the depth of the Pavillion gas field actually overlaps that of an underground source of drinking water. The press release went on to state that the EPA's conclusions are "specific to Pavillion" and that the Pavillion gas field has "production conditions different from those in many other areas of the country."
The "Conclusion" section of the draft report similarly states that, "Hydraulic fracturing in the Pavillion gas field occurred into zones of producible gas located within an Underground Source of Drinking Water (USDW)." The fracturing occurred, though, at depths greater than those to which domestic water wells are actually drilled.