EPA Finalizes Fracking Study Review Panel

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has finalized the panel charged with reviewing its study of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. According to a report from the Scranton Times-Tribune, the majority of the fracking study panel’s members are affiliated with research universities and none is currently employed by an oil or gas company.

The EPA launched its fracking study last year on the direction of the US Congress. The study, which is slated to be completed in 2012, will look at the impact the gas drilling technique has on the environment and human health. Opponents of fracking are hoping it will lead to better regulation of the industry.

Fracking, a natural gas drilling technique in which millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals is injected deep underground under high pressure, is exempt from federal regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. As a result, drillers are not required to disclose the chemicals that make up fracking fluids. Some studies have found that fracking fluids contain toxic chemicals, including benzene glycol-ethers, toluene, 2-(2-methoxyethoxy) ethanol, and nonylphenols.

The EPA originally nominated more than 80 candidates to the review panel. According to the Times-Tribune, the final 24-member panel will be led by David A. Dzombak, professor of environmental engineering at Pennsylvania’s Carnegie Mellon University. Several other panel members hail from Pennsylvania, a major fracking state. They are: Michel Boufadel of Temple University; Elizabeth Boyer of Penn State University; Richard Hammack, a Pittsburgh-based project manager for the U.S. Department of Energy; Jeanne VanBriesen of Carnegie Mellon and Radisav D. Vidic of the University of Pittsburgh.

Notably absent from the panel is Dr. Theo Colborn of Colorado, head of the Endocrine Disruption Exchange. Her group recently completed a study detailing the potential public health threat posed by fracking. The New York Times reported previously that the natural gas industry voiced its opposition to Dr. Colborn’s inclusion on the panel when she was nominated by the EPA.

Robert Howarth, a Cornell University professor who issued a three-page draft report in April claiming that shale gas production and use may generate as much greenhouse gas emissions as production and use of coal, was also left off the panel. His nomination was also opposed by the industry, according to the Times.

Some nominees that were opposed by environmentalists also did not make the EPA’s final cut. That includes Michael Economides, a University of Houston petroleum engineering professor. Last October, we reported that the Environmental Working Group had written to the EPA opposing his nomination. The group took issue with an editorial Economides wrote for the Syracuse Post-Standard that said the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing are “few … and not threatening.”

It is hoped that this panel will avoid the controversy that cropped up over a previous fracking study the EPA conducted in 2004. That study concluded that fracking posed no risks to water supplies, and was used to convince Congress to exempt the industry from the Safe Drinking Water Act. That study was criticized as flawed due to heavy industry influence on its review panel.

According to the Times-Tribune, in a memo announcing the new panel, the EPA found “no conflicts of interest or appearances of a lack of impartiality for the members of this panel.”

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