The EPA Finally Confirmed That Fracking Is Terrible for Drinking Water

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But is the agency’s new report too little, too late?

By Jared Keller

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(Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

After months of anticipation, the Environmental Protection Agency has confirmed what environmental activists have long believed: Hydraulic fracturing (or fracking), long seen by oil and gas companies as the future of domestic energy production in the United States, carries a significant human cost.

A comprehensive new report released by the agency this week found that the controversial extraction technique can have a major effect on the quality and quantity of drinking water resources available to nearby populations. This is a complete reversal from a preliminary version of the report released in 2015, which plainly stated “no evidence that fracking systemically contaminates [drinking] water.” The New York Timesnotes that the final report released this week was “unprecedented in scope and depth,” the result of a meticulous analysis of more than 1,200 sources of information and data (including more than 1,000 existing studies) and 13 peer-reviewed reports published in scientific journals since the EPA first initiated the review in 2010.

The most alarming conclusion of the EPA report is not just that the act of fracking itself — the high-pressure injection of a chemical mixture of proppants known as “fracking fluid” designed to create fissures through which natural resources can be extracted — can contaminate drinking water supplies “under some circumstances,” but that these supplies are affected at every single stage of the process. Here’s a full list of the “activities and factors” the EPA identifies in its report:

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

Even worse, the EPA report notes that “data gaps and uncertainties in available data” prevented the agency from fully gauging the scope and severity of fracking-based contaminations of drinking water. This has been a problem since the EPA released its preliminary report in 2015: While the EPA estimated that somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 new wells were drilled annually in the U.S. from 2011 to 2014, the “lack of a definitive well count … limits the ability to assess whether subsurface drinking water resources are isolated from hydraulically fractured oil and gas production wells.”

Regardless, EPA researchers did gather enough data to scientifically conclude that the “no evidence” assertion from the 2015 draft report had to go. “E.P.A. scientists chose not to include that sentence,” EPA science advisor Thomas A. Burke told the Times of the agency’s about-face. “The scientists concluded it could not be quantitatively supported.”

This is a big deal when you consider the potential health effects caused by fracking-contaminated water supplies. A 2011 study in Human and Ecological Risk Assessmentfound that water contamination could lead to a high risk of damage to the human sensory organs, respiratory, immune, and cardiovascular systems. Additionally, the EPA’s report notes that chronic exposure to water tainted with some 98 of the 1,084 chemicals commonly used in fracking fluids between 2005 and 2013 could result in “cancer, immune system effects, changes in body weight, changes in blood chemistry, cardiotoxicity, neurotoxicity, liver and kidney toxicity, and reproductive and developmental toxicity.” While this is all obviously bad, the EPA notes that the existing data is “insufficient to determine which chemicals have the greatest potential to impact drinking water resources and human health.” Evaluating these health effects is likely the next major research challenge for the EPA’s ongoing evaluation of hydraulic fracking.

Unfortunately, the EPA’s reversal on the effects of fracking on U.S. drinking water supplies doesn’t amount to much. On the campaign trail, President-elect Donald Trump pledged to unleash an economic boom for coal and gas companies by ending regulations on fracking, telling energy CEOs during a September campaign stop in Pittsburgh that “probably no other business has been affected by regulation [more] than your business” (although the New York Timespointed out at the time that safety regulations only cover about 10 percent of fracking wells within U.S. borders). While Trump’s positions on policy initiatives can fluctuate depending on the specifics (he’s said that he’s for local fracking bans, for example), his cabinet appointments in recent weeks suggest that he plans on making good on this promise.

Consider Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to helm the EPA, a long-time fossil fuel industry ally, critic of federal regulation, and long-time enemy of the EPA. It was Pruitt who recruited Republican governors and attorneys general to oppose Bureau of Land Management rules regulating fracking on federal land (including measures requiring the disclosure of potentially harmful chemicals used in the process) literally on behalf of oil and gas companies. In May of 2016, he appeared before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s Environment Subcommittee to argue that the natural gas produced by fracking had become a viable alternative to coal in his home state: “We are a leading innovator in natural gas production through hydraulic fracking, a technological innovation that has done more to reduce carbon emissions in this country than any other technological advancement of our time.” What Pruitt failed to note: The uptick in fracking has also unleashed a tidal wave of earthquakes in the Sooner State, some 1,000 with a magnitude greater than 3.0 in 2016 compared to just two in 2008 — a link the state acknowledged a full year before Pruitt’s full-throated defense of the practice in the House of Representatives.

Then there’s the appointment of former Texas Governor Rick Perry, who once forgot the Department of Energy even existed, to oversee the U.S.’s energy policy. As the Timesobserved in 2011, Perry was behind massive growth in Texas’ natural gas production (a 28 percent increase between 2000 and 2010) by embracing the loose regulations George W. Bush spearheaded during his time in the governor’s mansion; he spoke out in support of the practice in Iowa at the beginning of his 2012 presidential campaign, accusing the Obama administration of “trying to scare people, and saying that hydraulic fracking somehow or another is going to damage the groundwater.” According to Vox, energy experts and former department staffers expect that Perry will continue to focus on “laying the foundations for the U.S. fracking revolution.”

The EPA’s new report may have closed the book on fracking’s potential for harm, but the agency’s conclusion may be little more than the last, desperate gasp of a federal government facing a total invasion by political surrogates for America’s gas and oil conglomerates. And without allies in the federal government, let alone the EPA, under the Trump administration, it seems like no amount of science will prove an empirical silver bullet to put an end to the debate once and for all.

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