U.S. EPA is considering two former Halliburton Co. executives along with one of the most outspoken critics of hydraulic fracturing to provide independent expert advice on its study of the polarizing drilling practice.
The EPA Science Advisory Board's "short list" of 82 people to serve on a review panel could reignite a debate that dogged a previous fracturing study, in which a Halliburton employee served on a peer review panel that was criticized for being overloaded with people from the petroleum industry.
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 (Greenwire, Sept. 14).
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.
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.
The list of potential panelists for the new study includes one member of the 2004 peer review, Jon Olson, a former research engineer for Mobil who is now a professor at the University of Texas, Austin.
It also includes Theo Colborn of Colorado, a zoologist and pharmacist whose group, the Endocrine Disruption Exchange, has sought to document the damage that fracturing can do to water and human health.
And it includes several oil company officials, including two from Shell Oil Co. and one from Newfield Exploration Co., which has significant gas holdings in Pennsylvania.
Nominations open until Oct. 1
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, the 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.
Fracturing supporters and skeptics both said they were satisfied with EPA's list.
"A broad group of candidates was nominated, and we are pleased that EPA has a strong pool. We will be urging EPA to select experts without bias or conflict for a truly independent scientific review of the study design," said Amy Mall of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Chris Tucker, a spokesman for Energy in Depth, an industry group founded to fight federal regulation of fracturing, called it "not a bad starting point."
"Different folks are naturally going to bring different points of view to this panel, but the one baseline criterion you'd hope all the final participants would meet is a solid background in advanced engineering and the hard sciences," Tucker said.
"You'd also hope that those selected will have the ability to apply an objective eye to the work and render comments and recommendations that aren't held captive by a specific anti-development ideology. Not everyone listed in this preliminary document meets that standard, in our judgment, but on balance, it's not a bad starting point."
Click here to read EPA's list of candidates.