EPA Finds No Widespread Drinking Water Pollution From Fracking

Jun 4, 2015
Originally published on June 5, 2015 6:01 am

The Environmental Protection Agency says it has found no evidence that hydraulic fracturing — better known as fracking — has led to widespread pollution of drinking water. The oil industry and its backers welcome the long-awaited study, while environmental groups criticize it.

"We found the hydraulic fracturing activities in the United States are carried out in a way that has not led to widespread systemic impacts on drinking water resources," says Tom Burke, science adviser and deputy assistant administrator of the EPA's Office of Research and Development. "In fact, the number of documented impacts to drinking water resources is relatively low when compared to the number of fractured wells," he adds.

The EPA's draft assessment was conducted at the request of Congress. "It is the most complete compilation of scientific data to date," says Burke, "including over 950 sources of information, published papers, numerous technical reports, information from stakeholders and peer-reviewed EPA scientific reports."

Fracking has allowed drillers to tap oil and natural gas reserves once thought off-limits deep underground. That has led to drilling booms across the country and boosted the country's oil and natural gas production significantly. But environmental groups have long argued fracking comes with a cost to the environment, especially to water. Those groups have called for stronger regulations and even bans on fracking altogether.

The EPA study does identify some potential vulnerabilities to drinking water. They include the amount of water required for fracking in dry places and fracking in underground formations containing drinking water. The report also raises concerns about wells that are inadequately cased or cemented — something that can allow gases and liquids to migrate below ground. Another area of vulnerability the EPA highlights in its report is how wastewater and fracking fluids from drilling operations are handled and treated.

The American Petroleum Institute says the conclusions echo what the oil industry has argued all along. "Hydraulic fracturing is being done safely under the strong environmental stewardship of state regulators and industry best practices," says Erik Milito, API upstream group director.

Acknowledging the potential vulnerabilities outlined in the EPA report, Milito says, "Continuous safety improvements have been an ongoing part of hydraulic fracturing for 65 years."

The environmental group Food & Water Watch criticizes the EPA assessment, saying it "has the industry's oil fingerprints all over it." The group supports a ban on fracking and says this report should not be used to decide the industry's future.

"Sadly, the EPA study released today falls far short of the level of scrutiny and government oversight needed to protect the health and safety of the millions of American people affected by drilling and fracking for oil and gas," says Wenonah Hauter, Food & Water Watch executive director.

This is just a draft assessment. The EPA study will be finalized after a review by the Science Advisory Board and public comment.

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A new report from the Environmental Protection Agency is actually being hailed by the oil and gas industry. The EPA says hydraulic fracturing has not caused widespread pollution in drinking water. And it concludes that given how widespread fracking has become, there are relatively few documented problems when it comes to the impact on water resources. NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Fracking is all about water. It takes huge amounts of it pumped underground with chemicals to force oil and gas out of dense rocks. And many worry fracking puts nearby clean water at risk. EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator Tom Burke says this report has valuable knowledge.

TOM BURKE: It is the most comprehensive assessment to date of the scientific information available on the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing activities on our drinking water resources.

BRADY: At Stanford University, environmental scientist Rob Jackson says this is a helpful compilation mostly of work that's already out there. He wishes the EPA would have done more fieldwork, especially in locations like Dimmock, Pa., where there are known problems.

ROB JACKSON: They had proposed to do studies that looked at hydraulic fracturing before, during and after. None of that work was done. I think that's a missed opportunity.

BRADY: Jackson says this report does contain surprises. He didn't know more than 1,000 wells around the country had been hydraulically fractured directly into drinking water. That's one area of vulnerability the EPA highlighted. This is just a draft report. It won't be final until other scientists and the public get a chance to review and comment on it. Jeff Brady, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.