Commentary: Research supports EPA's decision to reconsider Obama fracking rules

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Last month, researchers published two major studies showing minimal environmental risks posed by oil and natural gas development. These peer-reviewed studies directly contradict two of the main claims leveled by environmental activists – namely, that fracking poses a significant risk to air quality and groundwater.

You may not have heard about them, but they're certainly worth examining.

The first study, conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), found that fracking is not a major threat to groundwater. Examining 116 water wells in three different shale plays (the Eagle Ford, Fayetteville and Haynesville) across three states, the researchers concluded that chemicals and methane levels found in the wells were most likely naturally occurring. The researchers also declared that oil and natural gas operations "did not contribute substantial amounts of methane or benzene to the sample drinking-water wells."

This is in line with numerous other studies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's comprehensive report published last December, which presented no evidence of widespread water contamination from fracking.

The scientific finding that fracking does not pose a major risk to drinking water directly contradicts environmental campaigners. For example, Sierra Club claims on its website that "fracking has contaminated the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of Americans." There is no evidence to support that claim, but the Club is so invested in its position that it tried to downplay the significance of this latest scientific finding.

In addition to not posing a major risk to groundwater, another study suggests oil and natural gas operations are even less a threat to air quality than previously thought. Led by a research scientist from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a study published in Environmental Science & Technology concluded that previous methane emissions studies relied on measurements taken during peak emissions events, which are both episodic and not reflective of average emissions rates. As a result, they may significantly overstate methane emissions from oil and natural gas development.

The NOAA findings are also noteworthy because they could undermine several of the Obama Administration's climate rules, which targeted methane emissions from oil and natural gas activities and were based in part on the very studies that the NOAA team scrutinized.

Activist groups often reference methane as a reason to ban fracking – again, basing their claims on scientifically unfounded conclusions. In its "urgent case for a ban on fracking," Food & Water Watch claims that "fracking wells release large amounts of methane gas."

The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), meanwhile, has credited fracking – and the increased natural gas it unlocked – as "an important reason for a reduction of GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions in the United States."

Whether you support fracking or have concerns, these studies should be seen as good news – notwithstanding the Sierra Club's desire to downplay a peer-reviewed study showing a low risk of groundwater pollution. Regulators and policymakers should also take note of the new findings.

When President Obama's EPA announced its final rules for methane emissions from oil and natural gas development, it cited "new science and data" that presumably "have shown that methane emissions from existing oil and gas sources are substantially higher than was previously understood."

Although it's just one report, the latest NOAA study is the first of a series of research papers examining previous methane research. If the scientific underpinning for a costly federal regulation is challenged by "new science and data," then EPA would be justified in taking another look at the rules.

That may already be happening. Over the protests of environmental groups, who often and ironically accuse others of denying science, President Trump's EPA recently announced it was pausing at least one of the Obama-era methane rules as part of a broader reconsideration process.

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