The EPA today released an executive summary (ES) of its long-awaited study of the impact of fracking on drinking water. While the report is still a draft external review, its release is being carefully watched by those on all sides of the debate. The major finding now circulating – that the EPA did not find “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States” but did find “specific instances where one or more mechanisms led to impacts on drinking water resources” – has something for both critics and supporters of fracking. The most important line of the ES by our reckoning, however, is the last one:
“Finally, and most importantly, this assessment advances the scientific basis for decisions by federal, state, tribal, and local officials, industry, and the public, on how best to protect drinking water resources now and in the future.”
Based on what’s presented in the ES, there’s no doubt that the EPA report will be helpful in adding to our understanding of the vulnerabilities of drinking water resources to fracking. The EPA has done this through an extensive literature review and systematic identification of potential mechanisms by which contamination could occur, and examination of cases in which contamination did in fact occur. However, the difference between understanding vulnerabilities and risk pathways and the “scientific basis for decisions,” while seemingly semantic, is large. The difference is a question of degree of uncertainty – do we have enough information to really advance the scientific basis, or are we still in the world of anecdotes? To the extent that data limitations force us to rely only on anecdotes, there is a way to go before decisionmaking can be improved.