EPA Findings on Hydraulic Fracturing Deemed “Unsupportable”

Published Dec 7, 2006

NOTE: The following is one of a series of case studies produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists' Scientific Integrity Program between 2004 and 2010 to document the abuses highlighted in our 2004 report, Scientific Integrity in Policy Making.

When an EPA study concluding that hydraulic fracturing "poses little or no threat" to drinking water supplies was published in 2004,¹ several EPA scientists challenged the study's methodology and questioned the impartiality of the expert panel that reviewed its findings. The Bush administration has strongly supported hydraulic fracturing, an oil extraction technique developed by Halliburton Co., but environmental groups as well as scientists within the EPA have warned that the practice may contaminate drinking water and needs to be regulated.

Hydraulic fracturing is a technique used to help increase the amount of oil that can be extracted from an oil well. It involves literally pumping water or another fluid into rock under such high pressure that it creates new cracks around an oil reservoir. As described in a Department of Energy fact sheet, fracturing is used "to create additional passageways in the oil reservoir that can facilitate the flow of oil to a producing well."² The fracturing fluid contains sand or some other 'propping agent' to help the cracks stay open, and can also include toxic chemicals such as diesel oil.³

When oil reservoirs lie close to aquifers there is a possibility that a fracture could open up between the two, contaminating the water. Critics of fracturing contend that because toxic fluids pumped into the ground during fracturing may seep into nearby ground water supplies, hydraulic fracturing should be regulated. Residents of Alabama, Colorado, New Mexico, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming have charged that their water quality or quantity has changed following fracturing operations of gas wells near their homes.4 The oil industry has steadily maintained that the practice is safe, and that efforts to regulate hydraulic fracturing would be a bad idea because they "could have significant adverse effects" on the domestic energy extraction business.5

The EPA study was undertaken in response to a 1994 petition to the EPA from residents of the state of Alabama claiming their drinking water had been contaminated by the process. In 1997 the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that hydraulic fracturing should be regulated under federal law.6 The Bush administration weighed in early on the issue of hydraulic fracturing. The Los Angeles Times reported that Vice President Cheney's 2001 energy task force report touted the benefits of hydraulic fracturing while ignoring its potential consequences, in spite of repeated requests by EPA scientists to include mention of environmental concerns. Cheney’s office was "involved in discussions about how fracturing should be portrayed in the report," the Times reported, even though the Vice President served as chief executive of Halliburton, Co., which earns a large chunk of its energy revenues, about $1.5 billion annually, from the practice.7 

In 2004, the EPA's study was released, concluding that hydraulic fracturing did not threaten water supplies and that no further study of the practice was needed.8 Soon afterwards, Weston Wilson, a scientist and 31-year veteran of the EPA, spoke out. In an 18-page letter to the EPA Inspector General and to congressional leaders, Wilson, who sought protection under the federal Whistleblower Protection Act wrote:

EPA's conclusions are unsupportable. EPA has conducted limited research reaching the unsupported conclusion that this industry practice needs no further study at this time. EPA decisions were supported by a Peer Review Panel; however five of the seven members of this panel appear to have conflicts-of-interest and may benefit from EPA's decision not to conduct further investigation or impose regulatory conditions.9

"I think the agency's acted egregiously," said Wilson in an interview a few months after sending his letter to Congress. "It's not fulfilling its responsibility to protect public health."10 Wilson's concern was supported by other scientists both inside and outside of EPA. Geoffrey D. Thyne, a professor at the Colorado School of Mines who is generally supportive of hydraulic fracturing, argued that exempting the practice from regulation "is premature, unwise and goes against the public interest."11 Wilson is correct when he says, "EPA should finish its study and obtain field information to see if this does represent a risk to ground water." 

1. Environmental Protection Agency, "Study of Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing of Coalbed Methane Wells on Underground Sources of Drinking Water," Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water report, June 2004, accessed December 6, 2006.

2. National Energy Technology Laboratory definition of hydraulic fracturing, accessed December 6, 2006.

3. Earthworks fact sheet, "Hydraulic Fracturing 101,"accessed December 6, 2006.

4. Michelle Nijhuis, "How Halliburton Technology is Wrecking the Rockies," On Earth, National Resources Defense Council, Summer 2006, accessed December 6, 2006.

5. Tom Hamburger and Alan C. Miller, "Halliburton's Interests Assisted by White House," Los Angeles Times, 14 October 2004, accessed 19 September 2006.

6. U.S. Court of Appeals, 11th Circuit, "LEAF vs. EPA," August 7, 1997, No. 95-6501, accessed December 7, 2006.

7. Ibid.

8. EPA, Executive Summary, 16.

9. Weston Wilson's letter to members of congress, 8 October 2004, accessed 19 September 2006.

10. Todd Hartman, "He's Either Loved or Reviled: EPA Whistle-Blower Stands Up to Agency," Rocky Mountain News, 31 May 2005, accessed 19 September 2006.

11. Tom Hamburger and Alan C. Miller, "Halliburton's Interests Assisted by White House," Los Angeles Time, October 14, 2004.

Related resources