EPA Report on Fracking, Drinking Water Lays Groundwork for More Study

 “The administration is trying to tighten up controls. I think it’s a good idea. They should have very strict controls. The Department of Energy should do it.”

— George P. Mitchell

In 2012, just prior to his death in 2013, the man known as the "Father of Fracking," George Mitchell gave an interview to Forbes Magazine. The quote above described Mitchell’s belief that tighter control of fracking by government regulators was a good thing. But, how does one determine whether and in what way to regulate something as complicated as fracking? One way is to study it and figure out what the facts are before either curtailing or expanding a practice.

To that end, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just released a report titled "Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources." Since its release, some news reports have indicated that EPA has concluded "no widespread" impact on drinking water. Yet other have indicated the opposite – that fracking does in fact cause contamination of drinking water. How can both be true?

Well, the fact is both statements are true. But before we get there, we need to take a look at what the assessment is and what it isn’t.

  • The EPA did not conduct any independent investigation of fracking and its effects on drinking water. Instead, it reviewed and synthesized the most scientific literature about fracking.

  • The EPA focused on only certain aspects of fracking its effect on water: withdrawal of water used in fracking; mixing water, chemical and proppant to create the fracking liquids; the injection of those liquids into the ground to fracture shale, tight formations and coalbeds; the flowback of that fracking water to the surface, as well as its reuse, treatment or disposal; and the disposal or treatment of wastewater. What the assessment did not consider are the effects of the acquisition of materials used in fracking (chemicals, sand, etc.) outside of the water cycle, site selection for fracking activities, well pad development and other infrastructure, reclaiming sites after fracking is completed, and the closure of fracked wells.

The EPA identified several ways in which fracking had the potential of impacting drinking water: withdrawals of a large amount of water during times of drought or in areas where water is not plentiful; injecting fracking liquids directly into drinking water resources; migration of fracking liquids, oil and gas into drinking water resources; and poorly treated wastewater discharged in or near drinking water sources. So, the reports that say that fracking can cause drinking water problems seem to be correct.

The EPA also concluded that despite the potential for harm, there was no “widespread, systematic impacts to drinking water resources of the United States,” so news reports downplaying the risks of fracking also appear to be right.

From 2011 through 2014, the EPA estimated that 25,000 to 30,000 new wells and a significant number of existing wells were fracked. Most of these wells were located predominantly in four states, and 9.4 million people live within a mile of a fracked well. Comparing the number of fracked wells and the known cases of negative impacts, the EPA concluded that “[t]he number of identified cases . . . was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.” That is, the EPA did not conclude that fracking never caused problems only that in comparison to the large number of operations, the negative results were few.

So, if both sides to this debate can claim that this assessment supports their respective positions, what can we glean from it? Well, first, this is not the last word in researching fracking and its effects on the environment – more are likely to come that may shed new light. Also, it is a mistake to consider this as some sort of piece of advocacy. Instead, it lays the groundwork for more data gathering and should assist policymakers and regulators in fashioning effective means to reduce, if not eliminate, the risk of fracking. The Father of Fracking seemed to have agreed with that tack.

Rather than coming at this issue from perspectives of absolute good or bad, it demonstrates that no means of energy production is without risk. The data generated in studying effects can form the basis of safer and more effective systems. The EPA is also providing public meetings and is inviting public comment on the report. Hopefully, it will lead to more rational and scientifically based policies both on exploiting natural resources and protecting the ones upon which we rely. 

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