By Patrick Crow
In the waning weeks of the Obama Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a report on the impact upon drinking water supplies from the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) practices in the oil and gas industry.
Reactions to the 1200-page EPA report, five years in the making, largely swirled around its repudiation of a key assertion in a 2015 draft report. At that time, EPA said there was “no evidence that fracking systemically contaminates” water supplies. That declaration prompted a chorus of protests from environmental groups.
In its final study, EPA watered down (if you’ll pardon the pun) its position. It deleted the offending statement, explaining that it lacked the facts to draw any conclusions about widespread impacts.
“Because of these data gaps and uncertainties, it was not possible to fully characterize the severity of impacts, nor was it possible to calculate or estimate the national frequency of impacts on drinking water resources from activities in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle,” EPA said.
However, EPA said fracking potentially could impact drinking water throughout the drilling process. Examples given were water withdrawals in areas with low water resources, chemical or water spills, the injection of fracking fluids into wells with faulty protective systems, and fracking fluids entering the groundwater supply.
Ultimately, the report’s conclusions were open to broad interpretation, and that’s just what happened.
Amy Mall, an analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, “The science is in: fracking has contaminated drinking water. For years, the oil and gas industry has tried to evade regulation, wield its political influence, hide data, and criticize science. These findings confirm what communities around the country have long feared.”
Mark Brownstein, a vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund, said, “EPA’s initial draft misled the public about the pollution risks of unconventional oil and gas development. The revised assessment puts an end to the false narrative of risk-free fracking that has been widely promoted by industry.”
Erik Milito, upstream director at the American Petroleum Institute, said, “It is beyond absurd for the administration to reverse course on its way out the door.” He said EPA “walked away” from nearly a thousand sources of information regarding industry practices and regulatory protections at each step in the hydraulic fracturing process.
Energy In Depth, an Independent Petroleum Association of America advocacy program, said that despite EPA’s reversal, the report still “blows apart the anti-fracking campaign’s most common claim, namely that hydraulic fracturing is polluting groundwater all across America.”
Oil industry advocates also said EPA’s report, lacking substantial evidence, simply amounted to a parting shot against the oil industry from the Obama Administration.
Last year a Duke University study put the fracking controversy in perspective. It said energy companies used 250 billion gallons of water to produce shale gas and oil from hydraulically fractured wells across the nation between 2005 and 2014. That 250 billion gallons was less than 1 percent of total industrial water usage nationwide.
During the same period, the fracked wells generated about 210 billion gallons of wastewater, much less (on a produced energy basis) than other extraction techniques, primarily waterflooding.
Despite all the battling and the bickering, the EPA study likely will just gather dust over the next four years. Incoming President Donald Trump has pledged to roll back President Barack Obama’s actions that restrain fossil fuel development, including fracking.
About the Author: Patrick Crow covered the U.S. Congress and federal agencies for 21 years as a reporter for industry magazines. He has reported on water issues for the past 15 years. Crow is now an Austin, Texas-based freelance writer.