The Environmental Protection Agency released
its five-years-in-the-making draft report
on hydraulic fracturing's impact on drinking water Thursday. That fracturing, colloquially known as "fracking," is achieved by injecting huge volumes of water mixed with chemicals into tight geological formations to pry oil and natural gas out of the rock.
What's the bottom line regarding fracking mechanisms with potential to taint drinking water resources, according to the agency?
We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States. Of the potential mechanisms identified in this report, we found specific instances where one or more mechanisms led to impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells. The number of identified cases, however, was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.
That sounds soothing. And it no doubt will give advocates of fracking, which include most elected Republicans and large numbers of elected Democrats, ammunition against environmental advocates who have said that fracking threatens drinking water and may cause other problems as well. But the authors themselves note in the very next paragraph of the report's executive summary:
This finding could reflect a rarity of effects on drinking water resources, but may also be due to other limiting factors. These factors include: insufficient pre- and post-fracturing data on the quality of drinking water resources; the paucity of long-term systematic studies; the presence of other sources of contamination precluding a definitive link between hydraulic fracturing activities and an impact; and the inaccessibility of some information on hydraulic fracturing activities and potential impacts
Which is to say that, despite taking five years, the report isn't complete because all the data aren't available to make an airtight case for fracking not being a threat to drinking water.
In a lengthy, eye-opening March article at InsideClimate News, Neela Banerjee explained some of the problems with producing the report:
"We won’t know anything more in terms of real data than we did five years ago," said Geoffrey Thyne, a geochemist and a member of the EPA's 2011 Science Advisory Board, a group of independent scientists who reviewed the draft plan of the study. "This was supposed to be the gold standard. But they went through a long bureaucratic process of trying to develop a study that is not going to produce a meaningful result."
More than a half-dozen former high-ranking EPA, administration and congressional staff members echoed Thyne's opinion, as did scientists and environmentalists. Nearly all the former government employees asked not to be identified because of ongoing dealings with government and industry. Two hundred pages of EPA emails and other documents about the study point to the same conclusions. The documents were acquired by Greenpeace under the Freedom of Information Act and shared with InsideClimate News.
There is more to this story below the fold.
One of the key problems with acquiring all the data needed to make the draft report definitive has been the oil and gas industry's unwillingness to collaborate with the EPA in the matter. Banerjee writes:
For the study's findings to be definitive, the EPA needed prospective, or baseline, studies. Scientists consider prospective water studies essential because they provide chemical snapshots of water immediately before and after fracking and then for a year or two afterward. This would be the most reliable way to determine whether oil and gas development contaminates surface water and nearby aquifers, and the findings could highlight industry practices that protect water. In other studies that found toxic chemicals or hydrocarbons in water wells, the industry argued that the substances were present before oil and gas development began.
Prospective studies were included in the EPA project's final plan in 2010 and were still described as a possibility in a December 2012 progress report to Congress. But the EPA couldn't legally force cooperation by oil and gas companies, almost all of which refused when the agency tried to persuade them. [...]
At the same time the prospective studies crumbled, the EPA retreated from three high-profile investigations of alleged water contamination by oil and gas development. From 2008 to 2012, the EPA sampled water in Dimock, Pa.; Pavillion, Wyo.; and Parker County, Texas. In each case, it found evidence of contamination. Nonetheless, the EPA declined to pursue further water sampling or disciplinary action against the energy companies.
None of the three sites was included in the EPA's report.
While the agency was working on their report, others were doing their own narrowly focused studies and coming up with disturbing results.
In June 2013, Duke scientists published a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that showed higher levels of methane, ethane and propane in groundwater samples in wells near active fracking sites compared with wells farther away. The next month, researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington reported in the journal Environmental Science & Technology that they had found elevated levels of arsenic and other heavy metals in private gas wells in the Barnett Shale formation.
Fracking advocates no doubt will argue that the EPA study puts the debate about drinking water contamination to rest and the "alarmists" should stop their bellyaching. That's nonsense. Further studies may prove the EPA to be right. And they may not. But there are more than enough caveats associated with this draft report to make any sober observer question not what the EPA team found in what it evaluated but what it couldn't evaluate because of lack of industry cooperation.
The report is expected to be finalized in 2016. You can make public comments on it here.
LakeSuperior has a post on this subject.