EPA study finds no ‘widespread’ impact on drinking water

By Ellen M. Gilmer, Mike Soraghan | 06/04/2015 01:14 PM EDT

Hydraulic fracturing can contaminate drinking water but has not caused “widespread” impacts, U.S. EPA found in a highly anticipated study released today.

Hydraulic fracturing can contaminate drinking water but has not caused "widespread" impacts, U.S. EPA found in a highly anticipated study released today.

The landmark findings, published in a final draft still subject to public comment and peer review, assessed the potential "life-cycle" effects of fracking — from water acquisition to injection to wastewater management — and identified vulnerabilities in the process that have led to contamination of surface water and groundwater in several cases.

"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," EPA said in an executive summary. "The number of identified cases, however, was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells."


The report upsets the industry line that fracking has never contaminated drinking water but concludes that the evidence does not indicate "widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States."

The two-layer message of the findings was evident in stakeholders’ immediate reaction, with environmentalists trumpeting the news that EPA linked fracking to water contamination and industry heralding the study as reaffirmation that fracking is safe.

"After more than five years and millions of dollars, the evidence gathered by EPA confirms what the agency has already acknowledged and what the oil and gas industry has known," the American Petroleum Institute’s Erik Milito said in a statement. "Hydraulic fracturing is being done safely under the strong environmental stewardship of state regulators and industry best practices."

Environmentalists, meanwhile, seized on the fact that the Obama administration has formally acknowledged instances of contamination.

"Today EPA confirmed what communities living with fracking have known for years, fracking pollutes drinking water," Earthworks Policy Director Lauren Pagel said in a statement. "Now the Obama administration, Congress, and state governments must act on that information to protect our drinking water, and stop perpetuating the oil and gas industry’s myth that fracking is safe."

The agency won’t issue policy recommendations from the study but noted in a statement that the study provides a tool for states and industry to adopt changes as needed.

"EPA’s draft assessment will give state regulators, tribes and local communities and industry around the country a critical resource to identify how best to protect public health and their drinking water resources," EPA science adviser Thomas Burke said in a statement after the release.

"It is the most complete compilation of scientific data to date, including over 950 sources of information, published papers, numerous technical reports, information from stakeholders and peer-reviewed EPA scientific reports."

Beyond the numbers

The study has been a political football for nearly five years. It was requested by House Democrats in 2010 and immediately became a point of contention between supporters and opponents of expanded domestic oil and gas production.

A final draft was originally planned for late 2012, but the agency instead published an interim progress report and pushed the final draft to 2014 — a deadline that then slipped to late spring 2015.

Early on, drilling critics packed hearing halls for the "scoping" process, while environmental groups and industry lobbied to get their favored scientists on the peer review panel (Greenwire, Dec. 21, 2012). The agency tangled with Halliburton Co. about what information the company should hand over, even issuing a subpoena at one point.

In 2012, EPA dropped a water contamination enforcement case against Range Resources Inc. in Texas in part because the company agreed to cooperate with the study, according to an inspector general report.

Differing interpretations of "fracking" fueled further controversy. Though the word refers to a specific state of the production process, in which crews use high-pressure water to crack open rock formations, many critics use the term as a catch-all description of the whole drilling process.

Industry has argued that EPA’s study should look only at what happens when fracturing fluid is injected at high pressure, instead of taking a life-cycle approach. Environmental groups, by contrast, have pushed to broaden the review into how expansion of the drilling industry, facilitated by advances in fracturing technology, will affect the environment, economy and quality of life in the regions where it’s taking place.

For both sides, the study has represented more than just a compilation of data. Industry fears the study will form the basis for more EPA regulation of drilling. And environmentalists are wary because a previous EPA study of the issue was used to justify a broad exemption for fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act.

That study, released in 2004, concluded that further study was not needed because fracturing in coalbed methane formations posed "little or no threat" to aquifers.