The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) yesterday finally released the final version of a long-anticipated report–initially requested by Congress in 2010- on the impact of fracking on drinking water supplies. In this latest, final report, the EPA walked back earlier findings from a preliminary report issued last year, when the agency concluded that hydraulic fracturing– more widely known as fracking– was not having “widespread, systematic impacts on drinking water.”
“EPA’s initial draft misled the public about the pollution risks of unconventional oil and gas development,” said Mark Brownstein, vice president for climate and energy at the Environmental Defense Fund. “The revised assessment puts an end to the false narrative of risk-free fracking that has been widely promoted by industry.”
What the EPA Report Says
That EPA report: :
provides scientific evidence that hydraulic fracturing activities can impact drinking water resources in the United States under some circumstances. As part of the report, EPA identified conditions under which impacts from hydraulic fracturing activities can be more frequent or severe. The report also identifies uncertainties and data gaps. These uncertainties and data gaps limited EPA’s ability to fully assess impacts to drinking water resources both locally and nationally. These final conclusions are based upon review of over 1,200 cited scientific sources; feedback from an independent peer review conducted by EPA’s Science Advisory Board; input from engaged stakeholders; and new research conducted as part of the study.
To summarize, as per DeSmogBlog:
The EPA’s conclusions were clear: fracking can harm water. And it’s not the the hydraulic fracturing process itself that poses risks — problems have emerged at every stage of the water cycle associated with fracking, at times making people’s drinking water supplies “unusable.”
The EPA press release issued to accompany release of the final report provides further specifics:
The report is organized around activities in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle and their potential to impact drinking water resources. The stages include: (1) acquiring water to be used for hydraulic fracturing (Water Acquisition), (2) mixing the water with chemical additives to make hydraulic fracturing fluids (Chemical Mixing), (3) injecting hydraulic fracturing fluids into the production well to create and grow fractures in the targeted production zone (Well Injection), (4) collecting the wastewater that returns through the well after injection (Produced Water Handling), and (5) managing the wastewater through disposal or reuse methods (Wastewater Disposal and Reuse).
EPA identified cases of impacts on drinking water at each stage in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle. Impacts cited in the report generally occurred near hydraulically fractured oil and gas production wells and ranged in severity, from temporary changes in water quality, to contamination that made private drinking water wells unusable.
The EPA adumbrated six specific conditions under which the impacts from hydraulic fracturing activities can be more frequent or severe, including:
Water withdrawals for hydraulic fracturing in times or areas of low water availability, particularly in areas with limited or declining groundwater resources;
Spills during the management of hydraulic fracturing fluids and chemicals or produced water that result in large volumes or high concentrations of chemicals reaching groundwater resources;
Injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into wells with inadequate mechanical integrity, allowing gases or liquids to move to groundwater resources;
Injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids directly into groundwater resources;
Discharge of inadequately treated hydraulic fracturing wastewater to surface water resources; and Disposal or storage of hydraulic fracturing wastewater in unlined pits, resulting in contamination of groundwater resources.
Despite the EPA’s assessment of the environmental consequences associated with the technique, fracking thus far has only been subject to light federal regulations, according to The New York Times. To date, the agency has only promulgated a single rule (during the Obama administration) intended to protect water from fracking waste. That rule only applies to fracking on public lands, which account for approximately 10 percent of all fracking in the United States. Most fracking occurs on state or private land, and is accordingly subject to state and local regulations only.
The appropriate scope of fracking regulations is in dispute. As per the Wall Street Journal’s assessment of the latest EPA report:
Energy industry executives and other supporters of fracking say the industry has developed effective ways of treating and disposing of the wastewater.
Industry leaders criticized the EPA for changing its conclusion shortly before Mr. Obama leaves office. “It is beyond absurd for the administration to reverse course on its way out the door,” said Erik Milito, upstream director at the American Petroleum Institute, the U.S.’s biggest oil and natural gas trade group.
Environmentalists, however, praised the EPA for excising the more sweeping earlier conclusion that fracking doesn’t have a “systematic” impact on drinking water supplies.
DeSmogBlog elaborates further:’
Still environmental groups cited the study’s findings as long-awaited vindication.
“The EPA has confirmed what we’ve known all along: fracking can and does contaminate drinking water,” Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director, Food & Water Watch, said in a statement. “We are pleased that the agency has acted on the recommendations of its Science Advisory Board and chosen be frank about the inherent harms and hazards of fracking.”
Those risks appear to be numerous. A review by DeSmog of the fine print of the study draft that was released last year noted that the EPA had found evidence of numerous problems related to fracking, including groundwater contamination in states from North Dakota to Texas to Pennsylvania, the fact that “hundreds or thousands of chemical or wastewater spills can be expected annually, and an average spill is over 400 gallons (picture eight 50-gallon drums), EPA found, despite limited reporting,” and the fact that “[r]oughly 3 percent of fracked wells in one part of North Dakota – in other words, hundreds of wells per year – were deliberately built short on the well casings that are designed to protect drinking water supplies. And without enough casing, the risk of contamination spikes 1,000- fold, EPA noted (p. 39).”[Jerri-Lynn here: I have omitted the links in this passage.[
In light of the EPA’s conclusions and the wide range of problems that the EPA identified, some environmental groups pressed for a national ban on hydraulic fracturing. “The science shows that fracking pollution has contaminated water supplies in many places across the country,” said Hollin Kretzmann of the Center for Biological Diversity. “To protect the millions of Americans living near fracked wells, we have to ban this toxic technique.”
President-elect Trump’s nominee for EPA administrator, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, has actively opposed previous EPA climate change initiatives. If his appointment is confirmed, he is unlikely to spearhead adoption of regulations to attempt to mitigate the impact of fracking on water quality.