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Environmental Group Objects to Fracking Study Panel Nominee

Oct 6, 2010 | Parker Waichman LLP

Fracking opponents aren’t too happy that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has nominated a petroleum engineer to sit on the panel that will review its just-begun study of the health and environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing. According to the Environmental Working Group, Michael Economides, a University of Houston petroleum engineering professor, will be biased.

The EPA announced the fracking study in March, following an order from 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.

The EPA released its “short list” of 82 candidates for the study’s seven-member review panel last month. In addition to Economides, the list included Jon Olson, a former research engineer for Mobil who is now a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, as well as officials from several oil companies, including two from Shell Oil Co. and one from Newfield Exploration Co., which has significant gas holdings in Pennsylvania.

The list of potential panel members also includes critics of fracking, such as 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.

In a letter to the EPA, the Environmental Working Group took issue with an editorial Economides wrote for Syracuse Post-Standard last month that said the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing are “few … and not threatening.” The group’s letter points out that this is in conflict with recent disclosure in New York of some 250 chemicals used in fracturing operations, including petroleum distillate.

“By misstating publicly available information and accepted science on hydraulic fracturing, Mr. Economides appears to be biased in favor of a predetermined outcome to EPA’s study — an outcome that would show no risks from fracturing,” says the letter.

The EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board will make the final determination on who will serve on the panel, and it is no longer accepting comments on potential reviewers. Before the final selections are made, prospective panelists will have to submit a confidential disclosure form outlining any financial conflicts.

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. An EPA whistleblower claimed that the study’s findings were “unsupportable.” He also alleged that evidence showing that benzene and other toxic chemicals in fracking fluid could migrate into ground water had been suppressed in the final report, and that five of the seven reviewers on the panel had conflicts of interest.

Of note, one of the nominees on the EPA’s current short list, the above mentioned Jon Olson, was a member of the much-maligned 2004 review panel.

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