The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) final report on the drinking water impacts of hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking) has provoked howls from The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, which blasted EPA analysts as “science deniers” pushing “fake news.” But the editorial’s deeply flawed reasoning is the latest evidence that the Journal is in denial when it comes to scientific findings that conflict with its pro-fossil fuel agenda, whether they relate to fracking or climate change.
In the December 18 editorial, the Journal misrepresented the changes the EPA made to its draft version of the report, which was released in June 2015:
After being barraged by plaintiff attorneys and Hollywood celebrities, the EPA in its final report substituted its determination of no “widespread, systemic impact” with the hypothetical that fracking “can impact drinking water resources under some circumstances” and that “impacts can range in frequency and severity” depending on the circumstances.
The EPA now asserts that “significant data gaps and uncertainties” prevent it from “calculating or estimating the national frequency of impacts.”
In reality, all of the findings the Journal pointed to in the final version of the report were also present in the draft version. The draft version stated that “there are above and below ground mechanisms by which hydraulic fracturing activities have the potential to impact drinking water resources,” identified “factors affecting the frequency or severity” of those impacts, and acknowledged that “data limitations” prevent the agency from having “any certainty” of how often fracking has actually impacted drinking water.
The one change the Journal correctly identified was that in the final version of the report, the EPA rescinded its draft conclusion that there was no evidence fracking has “led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources.” But contrary to the Journal’s claim that the EPA disavowed that finding because the agency had been “barraged by plaintiff attorneys and Hollywood celebrities,” it was actually changed after the EPA’s scientific advisory board, which evaluates the agency’s “use of science,” pointed out that the draft conclusion wasn’t supported elsewhere in the report:
The [Science Advisory Board] has concerns regarding the clarity and adequacy of support for several major findings presented within the draft Assessment Report that seek to draw national-level conclusions regarding the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources.
Of particular concern in this regard is the high level conclusion statement on page ES-6 that “We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.” 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.” The SAB observes that the statement has been interpreted by readers and members of the public in many different ways. 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.
EPA Deputy Administrator Tom Burke recently confirmed that the EPA chose to remove the “no widespread, systematic impacts” language after receiving feedback from the science advisory board, and “Burke said the EPA opted to remove the phrase because it ‘could not be quantitatively supported’ and it ‘showed that sentence did not clearly communicate the findings of the report,’" as American Public Media reported.
The Journal further claimed that “the EPA’s faulty construction of a monitoring well caused contamination” in Pavillion, WY, citing that situation as an example of how “any technology has the potential to inflict some damage” if mismanaged. However, that claim – which has been pushed by a fossil fuel industry front group – has been debunked by experts at Stanford University, as the Casper Star-Tribune reported:
Industry critics once argued samples from the EPA’s groundwater monitoring wells should be discounted because of faulty construction. But the compounds found in those monitoring wells are more commonly associated with fracking—not the cements used to encase a well, [Stanford researchers Dominic DiGiulio and Robert Jackson] say.
The Journal concluded its editorial by asserting that it is “ironic” that liberals who “denounce anyone who cites uncertainties about carbon’s climate impact as ‘deniers’” are now “justifying their opposition to fracking based on scientific uncertainties.” As quite possibly the most frequent purveyor of climate science misinformation in the entire media landscape, the Journal has rightly received substantial criticism for its climate denial. The difference, of course, is that there is near-universal scientific consensus that carbon pollution is warming the planet, whereas both the draft and final versions of the EPA report show that no such consensus yet exists about the impacts fracking has had on drinking water resources.
Such false equivalency only goes to show that the Journal editorial board is in denial about both climate change and fracking.