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FARMINGTON — In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a draft assessment of a study looking into hydraulic fracturing's potential impact on drinking water and concluded fracking was off the hook for water pollution.

Now, a scientific panel made up of 30 expert analysts — hydrologists, geologists, scientists, many of them professors in the sciences — who oversaw the investigation, came back this month charging that the study lacked baseline testing that would have led to more insightful and revealing results.

On Jan. 7, the Hydraulic Fracturing Research Advisory Panel, a division of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, released 130 pages of their findings along with a letter written to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, taking issue with what it said were missing pieces in the EPA’s study.

Wally Drangmeister,  spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said that the association backs the initial EPA draft report, calling it a "solidly done study and very comprehensive."

The panel said the EPA’s report excluded “prospective case studies,” otherwise known as baseline testing. In this case, baseline testing would include studies conducted on water quality before oil and gas drilling occurred to better gauge whether water sources were impacted by industry development.

The panel also told McCarthy is the letter that it had "concerns regarding the clarity and adequacy of support for several major findings" in the report. And the panel told McCarthy that 47 findings in the executive summary of the report were "presented ambiguously" and are "inconsistent with the 48 observations, data, and levels of uncertainty presented and discussed in the body of the draft assessment."

Of particular concern to the panel was a "high-level conclusion statement" in the report that said the EPA "did not find evidence that hydraulic fracturing mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States."

The expert analysts said that statement failed to clearly describe the type of water system addressed in the report and does not "reflect the uncertainties and data limitations" that might accompany such impacts.

"The statement is ambiguous and requires clarification and additional explanation," the panel wrote.

In a press release issued when the draft assessment was released, Thomas A. Burke, EPA’s science adviser and deputy assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Research and Development, touted the study's thorough look at the issue.

“EPA’s draft assessment will give state regulators, tribes and local communities and industry around the country a critical resource to identify how best to protect public health and their drinking water resources,” Burke said in the release. “It is the most complete compilation of scientific data to date, including over 950 sources of information, published papers, numerous technical reports, information from stakeholders and peer-reviewed EPA scientific reports.”

In a Jan. 4 post on the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association's Facebook page — days before the panel released its report and letter — the industry group trumpeted the EPA study's conclusion.

"We've all heard the complaints about fracking poisoning ground water, but is it true?" the post read. "According to the results of an EPA report released a few months back, the answer is no."

"We stand by the original study and its original conclusions," Drangmeister said in a phone interview. "(The panel) didn't like the report, and they have pressured the EPA to change their findings. They used to say science isn't political, but I haven't seen anything from science as (reported in) the media that doesn't have horrendous political overtones. This is just that. This is just another attempt at a bite at the apple of people who don't agree with the EPA. I think it's part of the political reality that we find ourselves in."

Although some might find irony in the idea of a pro-oil and gas group supporting a federal agency it often castigates, Drangmeister said any perceived irony is less important than his group's allegiance to the truth.

Conservation and environmental groups have objected to oil and gas drilling and the new technologies used to extract oil from shale formations, citing pollution and threats to drinking water, wildlife and cultural resources.

Drangmeister said that at least with this EPA report, the verdict on the safety of water from oil and gas drilling is clear.

"We are on the side of science, the truth and rational public policy," Drangmeister said. "and when there are things that are solid on all three of those factors, regardless of where it comes from, it's easy for us to acknowledge them."

The EPA had been working on the draft assessment since 2009 when the U.S. Congress asked the agency to look at the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water resources. It is up to the EPA whether it will accept the findings of the panel's report.

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.

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