EPA Concludes: Fracking Harms Drinking Water

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.”

The New York Times  described  yesterday’s report as “the largest and most comprehensive of its kind to date on the effects of fracking on water supply while the Wall Street Journal noted:

“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.


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  1. Foppe

    Why this outcome now? To be able to claim the moral high ground now that Hillary’s lost anyway?
    And how did such a change in the substantive conclusions happen in a mere year, if they were still able to come up with utter BS conclusions after 5 years of supposedly looking into it? This smells like Japan signing on to TPP after it looked scuttled.

    1. hemeantwell

      Right. This seems heavily politically overdetermined. And, the fact that it is will make the shift all the more easily scorned by the incoming Scorner in Chief and his minions.

    2. cocomaan

      This definitely feels like a politically timed release. Fracking isn’t exactly a new technology and, while I realize accurate data is hard to come by, come on.

      However, I think it’s also likely that it’s an “Oh shit!” moment by the EPA, whose bureaucrats probably also assumed, like the rest of the Beltway, that HRC would be president.

      So it’s one of those “negligence or malice?” debacles.

    3. PKMKII

      Methinks this is what the bureaucrats at the EPA wanted to conclude all along, but didn’t for fear of reprisal by TPTB that control the Democrats’ purse. Now that Cheeto Benito is coming to power they know they’re all going to be out of a job soon. So they make a little mess before they get booted.

    4. djrichard

      I’m wondering if the EPA wasn’t so much rushing this as they were sitting on this, keeping it as ammunition for behind-the-scenes negotiation with the frackers.

      Edit: Presidents that only pretend to regulate appreciate that when their agencies don’t get ahead of them. Then they realized they better get ahead of Trump.

  2. Vatch

    For the second time today, I urge readers to contact their Senators to oppose the appointment of Scott Pruitt to lead the EPA. Contact information is here:


    Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, children and adults: we all need safe water to drink. It’s a biological issue first, and a political issue second.

      1. Vatch

        Somebody very bad, no doubt. My quixotic hope is that because Trump supposedly does not have strong ideological views, and instead cares more about winning, if some of his bad nominees are blocked, maybe he’ll eventually start choosing some people who aren’t quite so bad. Events may prove me to be very naive.

  3. PlutoniumKun

    Coincidentally, probably the most up to date synthesis report on fracking was published last week – one carried out jointly by the Irish and Northern Ireland authorities – it can be found on the Irish EPA website. It didn’t come to conclusions, but the USEPA Report is likely to be very significant in Europe because of under EU Directives there is a far stronger burden of proof on developers that they will not impact on water quality. So this is arguably a bigger blow to fracking in Europe than it will be in Trumps America. There is already likely to be a moratorium on fracking in the Republic of Ireland to join others in Europe (although not in Brexit UK, May and her party are gung ho on fracking).

  4. Art Eclectic

    This report is DOA with an incoming administration that is solely focused on resource extraction under the guise of job creation.

    1. ewmayer

      Or, alternatively, might be taken as illustrating how useless the EPA already has become at performing its mission. I.e., The Donald can’t well crapify something that is already shite. Silver lining!

  5. Dean Poirier

    In any case it will come to nothing. The fix was in with the Halliburton Exclusion from the Clean Water Act. It was a foregone conclusion that some people’s drinking water would be spoiled and oil companies would escape responsibility. Making noise about it now is like the villagers storming Frankenstein’s castle ten years after he’d moved out. This is how we always lose. It’s how the script is written.

  6. redleg

    They still didn’t address where the oil, gasses, and water goes when the formation is fractured. Fracking opens up an effectively closed system, and not all of the released and injected fluids are released into the well bore. Some, if not most, gets released into the surrounding strata which is one (big) way aquifers end up with a load of petroleum, methane, argon, and salt after an area is fracked when that stuff was essentially absent before fracking.

    1. Yves Smith

      I suggest you read our site Policies. We didn’t block it, our software did. And for good reason. We are not letting it through.

      This is not a chat board. Dumps from other sites are not permitted. We’ve put other readers in moderation and not freed their comments for just that reason.

      In addition, your dump was from the petroleum industry’s official lobbying group. Our site policies also clearly state that agnotology is against our policies. It has already been well documented that the petroleum industry has been engaging in agnotology for decades regarding the impact of carbon emissions on the climate. You have been commenting only on this issue and ONLY run industry talking points. We are not a platform for de facto lobbyists either.

  7. Oil Dusk

    So, because I’m in the oil and gas industry my comments aren’ t allowed.

    This is another Obama spanner wrench and you know it.

    What’s your address, I’ll send you a copy of Oil Dusk and you can judge for yourself.

    1. Outis Philalithopoulos

      No, as Yves explained, your comment wasn’t allowed because you took an article written by a lobbying group (the IPAA) and tried to post a very long excerpt from it without contributing any original thinking of your own.

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