NATURAL GAS:

Drillers protest nomination of fracking critics for EPA review panel

An oil and gas group is protesting the nomination of critics of hydraulic fracturing to serve on a panel that will peer review a U.S. EPA study of the drilling practice.

The Independent Petroleum Association of America sent a letter to EPA today highlighting two critics on the list of 82 potential panelists.

"Unfortunately, a number of nominees' past comments betray a strong and unambiguous antipathy toward shale development in general, and hydraulic fracturing in particular," IPAA President and CEO Barry Russell wrote.

The letter singles out two critics -- Theo Colborn and Robert Howarth. It does not give their names, but IPAA's detailed complaints about the two identify them.

Colborn is a Colorado zoologist and pharmacist whose group, the Endocrine Disruption Exchange, has sought to document the damage that fracturing can do to water and human health. IPAA said she authored a "white paper" that called for federal regulation of fracturing.

Howarth is a Cornell University professor who issued a three-page draft report in April saying that shale gas production and use may generate as much greenhouse gas emissions as production and use of coal. Russell's letter said it was "riddled with errors."

The EPA Science Advisory Board's "short list" of potential panelists also includes officials from oil and gas firms such as Halliburton Co., Shell Oil Co. and Newfield Exploration Co. and a member of a panel that reviewed a controversial 2004 report on fracturing (Greenwire, Sept. 20).

Most of the potential panelists listed are university professors, from places such as the University of Texas and the Colorado School of Mines. It also includes Anthony Ingraffea, an engineering professor at Cornell University and prominent critic of fracturing, who has said large-scale gas development is inconsistent with upstate New York's environment of agriculture, tourism and recreation.

To form the panel, EPA's Scientific Advisory Board sought nominations of nationally recognized and qualified experts in several fields, including petroleum geology, hydrology, chemistry and environmental monitoring. It is accepting comments on the potential reviewers until Oct. 1.

The board's staff office director will make the final decision about who will serve on the panel. Prospective panelists will have to submit a confidential disclosure form outlining any financial conflicts.

The new study has run into controversy even before it starts, as the gas industry and its critics jockey to influence the planning and "scope" of the study. Gas drillers have complained that EPA is planning to look too broadly, including at parts of the drilling process that do not directly involve fracturing. Hundreds of people, mostly opponents, have shown up to testify at normally docile "scoping" hearings.

The results of the final study won't be released until 2012. The new study was sought last year by congressional Democrats who worry that the high-pressure underground injections of chemical-laced water could be contaminating drinking water.

Controversial 2004 study

The previous study began in 2000 and concluded in 2004 and never got as much attention as the current study. It found that fracturing may release potentially hazardous chemicals into sources of drinking water but said there was no reason to study it further. The study determined that fracturing posed "little or no threat" because the water is sucked back up out of the ground and the hazardous chemicals would likely be diluted or biodegrade on their own.

The study bolstered the case of gas producers, which asked Congress for a specific exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act for fracturing and received it in a 2005 energy bill.

The peer review for the 2004 study also included Buddy McDaniel, who was a technical adviser for production enhancement technology for Halliburton, which lobbied Congress on fracturing in the years leading up to the Safe Drinking Water Act exemption.

Shortly after the study was released in 2004, Denver-based EPA environmental engineer Weston Wilson wrote to Congress that the study's findings were "unsupportable," prominently citing the alleged conflicts of interest of five of the seven peer reviewers.

Jon Olson, a former research engineer for Mobil who is now a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, served on the peer review panel in 2004 and is on the list of 82 nominees to review the new study.

An attempt to get comment from EPA was not successful. But in response to a previous question about controversial nominees to the list of potential panelists, EPA issued a statement saying, "EPA's Hydraulic Fracturing study will be conducted through a transparent, peer-reviewed process, with significant stakeholder input. We have held a series of public meetings across the country to discuss the design and scope of the study. We are committed to using the best available science in this process and look forward to the participation of independent experts and the public on how to best conduct this study."

Click here to view IPAA's letter.