In January this year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revamped its webpage on fracking. The page now promotes the interests of the fossil fuel industry at the expense of scientific knowledge and public transparency.
These edits were documented by the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative, a coalition that has tracked changes made to federal environmental websites during the Trump administration. The president has vowed to ease restrictions on fracking as part of his fossil fuel-heavy economic plan.
Once titled “Natural Gas Extraction – Hydraulic Fracturing,” the single page is now called “Unconventional Oil and Natural Gas Development.” It informs the public of the EPA’s role in fracking, a technique for extracting natural gas by drilling down and injecting a pressurized mixture of water, sand, and chemicals into the rock.
“‘Hydraulic fracturing,’ easily gives way to the popular and colloquial ‘fracking,’ which is an ugly sounding word—used in place of swears in Battlestar Galactica for a reason,” Gwen Arnold, assistant professor of environmental science and policy at the University of California, Davis, told Motherboard in an email. “The oil and gas industry prefers the ‘unconventional’ phrasing because it helps link fracking to conventional oil and gas drilling."
The EPA did not respond to Motherboard’s questions regarding why this page was so heavily changed.
Some of the most significant changes to the page emphasize the economic benefits of fracking while obscuring its known risks, such as air pollution and drinking water contamination—findings the EPA’s own scientists stressed in the months preceding President Trump’s inauguration.
“[This is] one among many instances wherein the administration has deemphasized or questioned the importance or credibility of scientific knowledge and scientists,” Arnold said, noting President Trump’s “scientists on both sides” refrain regarding climate change and other environmental issues.
The EPA removed text about air pollution standards from the page, and links to press and compliance materials. One section’s title was subtly changed from “Addressing air quality impacts associated with hydraulic fracturing activities” to “Addressing air quality impacts.”
In another section, new information was added about industry stakeholders which “represent the engine of the American economy in order to explore significant opportunities for environmental improvement.” The page also now includes letters from oil and gas associations to former EPA Secretary Scott Pruitt, urging him to roll back EPA enforcement of certain oil and gas operators.
Some paragraphs were wholesale removed, such as one that said the EPA is working to improve our scientific understanding of fracking, and another that underscored the need to carefully manage natural gas development in tandem with its rapid development.
One section also notably removed a sub-section called “Hydraulic Fracturing Chemicals and Mixtures.” Previously, this page disclosed the use of chemicals used during fracking and communicated issues such as outreach, peer review, and transparency with the public.
“Public health advocates say that understanding the impacts that fracking is having on environmental health begins with actually understanding what chemicals fracking is putting into the environment,” Arnold said. “[Fracking companies] do not want to disclose the chemicals or their concentrations [or] ratios because they say that this is proprietary information and disclosing it would remove [or] reduce their competitive advantage.”