WASHINGTON, Dec. 15, 2016 - Correcting what it considers a misreading of its 2015 draft report on hydraulic fracking, EPA released a thick final report Tuesday that it says “provides scientific evidence that hydraulic fracturing activities can impact drinking water resources in the United States under some circumstances.”

EPA’s June 2015 draft report included one sentence highlighted ever since by the petroleum industry: “We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.” 

Releasing the new report, Thomas Burke, EPA science adviser and deputy assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Research and Development, said the agency took into account extensive public comments, peer reviews, stakeholder views and the scientific literature to reach its conclusion that fracking has impacted drinking water in certain cases. He noted that the report’s findings are limited by data gaps and uncertainties. 

Burke emphasized that the report also provides states, tribes and other communities with “the scientific foundation to better protect drinking water resources in areas where hydraulic fracturing is occurring or being considered.”

The American Petroleum Institute blasted what it said was the EPA’s “abandonment of science” in revising the conclusions to its earlier assessment report. 

“It is beyond absurd for the administration to reverse course on its way out the door,” said API Upstream Director Erik Milito. “The agency has walked away from nearly a thousand sources of information from published papers, technical reports and peer reviewed scientific reports demonstrating that industry practices, industry trends, and regulatory programs protect water resources at every step of the hydraulic fracturing process. Decisions like this amplify the public’s frustrations with Washington.    

“Fortunately, the science and data clearly demonstrate that hydraulic fracturing does not lead to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources. Unfortunately, consumers have witnessed five years and millions of dollars expended only to see conclusion based in science changed to a conclusion based in political ambiguity. We look forward to working with the new administration in order to instill fact-based science back into the public policy process.”

API also pointed out that the report had concluded that the number of contamination cases was small compared to the large number of wells fracked nationwide.

Hydraulic fracturing injects a mixture of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to fracture tight rock formations deep underground to release more oil and natural gas. First developed by the U.S. Department of Energy, fracking has become controversial because of cases where it has been blamed for contaminated water supplies and others where it has been linked to increased seismic activity. Despite the controversy, the oil industry’s use of hydraulic fracking has increased dramatically and is considered a major factor in today’s oversupply and low oil and natural gas prices. 

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As part of the fracking report requested by Congress, EPA identifies conditions that can lead to more frequent or severe impacts from fracking. Saying that critical water-resource decisions should be based on science to protect public health and drinking water, Burke called the report “the most complete compilation to date of national scientific data on the relationship of drinking water resources and hydraulic fracturing.”

Burke noted that the report covers all five stages of the fracking process that can threaten drinking water:

  •  Acquiring water to be used for hydraulic fracturing;
  • Mixing the water with chemical additives to make hydraulic fracturing fluids;
  • Injecting hydraulic fracturing fluids into the production well to create and grow fractures in the targeted production zone;
  • Collecting the wastewater that returns through the well after injection, and
  • Managing the wastewater through disposal or reuse methods.

The report states that “EPA identified cases of impacts on drinking water at each stage in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle” and that these impacts “generally occurred near hydraulically fractured oil and gas production wells,” Burke said. 

Proven impacts “ranged in severity, from temporary changes in water quality, to contamination that made private drinking water wells unusable,” the report says.

In its guidance for states, tribes or communities where fracking is taking place or being considered, EPA points to six parts of the fracking process that pose the greatest risk of more frequent or severe impacts: 

  • Water withdrawals for hydraulic fracturing in times or areas of low water availability, particularly in areas with limited or declining groundwater resources;

  • Spills during the management of hydraulic fracturing fluids and chemicals or produced water that result in large volumes or high concentrations of chemicals reaching groundwater resources;

  • Injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into wells with inadequate mechanical integrity, allowing gases or liquids to move to groundwater resources;

  • Injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids directly into groundwater resources;

  • Discharge of inadequately treated hydraulic fracturing wastewater to surface water resources, and

  • Disposal or storage of hydraulic fracturing wastewater in unlined pits, resulting in contamination of groundwater resources. 

Promising to continue work to reduce data gaps and uncertainties, EPA notes that current understanding is limited because “comprehensive information on the location of activities in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle is lacking, either because it is not collected, not publicly available, or prohibitively difficult to aggregate.” EPA cautions that because this information is incomplete, “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’s bottom line is that fracking has impacted water supplies in certain cases – and that there are best practices for avoiding or at least limiting these impacts. The report and related documents are available on EPA’s Hydraulic Fracturing page.


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