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Sick and Tired

EPA's Study of Fracking: Media Hype and Reality

By Robert Oswald and Michelle Bamberger

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Photo credit: Joshua Doubek

The EPA recently released a review draft of its long awaited study of hydraulic fracturing in the United States entitled “Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources.” This report, which totaled almost one thousand pages, was undoubtedly read by very few people, but the news coverage was astounding. Oklahoma’s senator Jim Inhofe stated in a press release: “EPA’s report on hydraulic fracturing confirms what we have known for over sixty years when the process began in Duncan, Oklahoma—hydraulic fracturing is safe…” Erik Milito of the American Petroleum Institute said, “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: hydraulic fracturing is being done safely under the strong environmental stewardship of state regulators and industry-best practices…” But is that the message from the document itself? Tom Burke, the deputy assistant administrator of the EPA’s office of research, explained the impact of the document: “It’s not a question of safe or unsafe” but rather “how do we best reduce vulnerabilities so we can best protect our water and water resources?”

If we accept Tom Burke’s explanation, how did so many news outlets get the story so wrong? The document itself states: “We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systematic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.” This was the quote that was taken out of context and drove the breathless news coverage. A very different picture emerges if one actually takes the time to read the document. 

The report acknowledges that identified cases of water contamination are small relative to the number of wells drilled and hydraulically fractured. But the important point is that the report also notes that this may well be an underestimation due to the lack of predrilling testing, other sources of chemicals that complicate identifying the source of contamination, short duration of studies, and inaccessible information. Since most of this information was gleaned from published studies rather than new information generated by the EPA, the actual conclusions of the EPA are what most of us that have studied this issue already knew. That is, we cannot state for certain that widespread, systematic impacts on drinking water resources occur due to unconventional fossil fuel extraction mainly because, in the words of the EPA, “data limitations preclude a determination of the frequency of impacts with any certainty.” 

Ironically, the day after the release of the EPA report, Mark Nechodom, the director of the California Department of Conservation, resigned due to a scandal involving the direct injection of wastewater from oil extraction into Central Valley aquifers. Even more recently, a paper was published in Environmental Science & Technology that demonstrated widespread contamination of drinking water wells in the Barnett Shale region of Texas by BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylene) and various chlorinated compounds. While the link between widespread drilling activities could not be definitively proven, historical evidence suggested that the water was contaminated since the start of drilling in that area. Taken together, the message is definitely not that unconventional extraction of fossil fuel is safe but rather that much more information is needed to understand the extent of the threat to drinking water resources.

Although this is not news to many of us who have studied the issue, the EPA report is notable for definitively stating that drinking water has been impacted by processes associated with unconventional fossil fuel extraction. For example, in Chapter 7, the EPA states: “Scientific literature and published reports have shown that produced water spills have impacted drinking water resources.” On wastewater treatment and waste disposal (Chapter 8), the report states: “These unauthorized discharges represent both documented and potential impacts on drinking water resources. However, data do not exist to evaluate whether such episodes are uncommon or whether they happen on a more frequent basis and remain largely undetected.” We now know that the practice was not necessarily uncommon in California (see above). Also in Chapter 8: “Hydraulic fracturing wastewater discharged from treatment facilities without advanced TDS removal processes has been shown to cause elevated TDS (total dissolved solids), bromide, and chloride levels in receiving waters in Pennsylvania.” These are all examples of cases in which water was contaminated in processes associated with hydraulic fracturing, but the case is often made that hydraulic fracturing itself has not caused water contamination. 

image from www.beacon.orgThe EPA concludes that, except in cases where fractures communicate with existing wells, the possibility of contamination due specifically to hydraulic fracturing in deeper formations such as the Marcellus (Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, New York, Maryland) and Haynesville (Louisiana, Texas) shales is unlikely. The possibility of contamination increases in more shallow resources such as the Antrim (Michigan) and New Albany (Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky) shales as well as portions of the Marcellus shale in New York State. However, in cases where oil and gas reservoirs are in the same formation as drinking water resources (e.g., coalbed methane formations), “the practice of injecting fracturing fluids into a formation that also contains a drinking water resource directly affects the quality of that water, since it is likely that fluid remains in the formation following hydraulic fracturing.” 

This is a dramatic departure from the EPA’s 2004 assessment of hydraulic fracturing within a drinking water resource: “CBM (coalbed methane) production is dependent on the removal of large quantities of groundwater. EPA believes that this groundwater production, combined with the mitigating effects of dilution and dispersion, adsorption, and potentially biodegradation, minimize the possibility that chemicals included in the fracturing fluids would adversely affect USDWs (underground sources of drinking water).” It is refreshing that the EPA corrected this clearly erroneous assessment. These clear statements by the EPA should put to rest the idea that water has never been contaminated by processes associated with hydraulic fracturing. Given that the American Petroleum Institute has endorsed the findings of this report, one would hope that those individuals whose water has been contaminated by unconventional extraction will finally receive compensation and that the massive difficulties in adjudicating these issues will be ameliorated. 

Perhaps the most important thing to note is that this EPA study is limited to drinking water. As we describe in our book, The Real Cost of Fracking: How America’s Shale Gas Boom is Threatening Our Families, Pets, and Food, the impacts of unconventional extraction go far beyond drinking water and include, for example, air quality, noise, quality of life, traffic, crime, infrastructure, and economic activity. A full assessment of this large experiment in industrialization of the landscape cannot be limited to one variable that we still do not fully understand. The EPA study did little to decide the issue. 

Much more work will be required to understand the degree to which this process has widespread impacts. The long-term solution, however, is to move away from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy. This is within our reach, but will require removal of the massive subsidies provided to the fossil fuel industry.


About the Authors

image from www.beacon.orgRobert Oswald is a professor of molecular medicine at Cornell University and the recipient of Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships. They serve on the advisory board of Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy. Bamberger and Oswald live in Ithaca, New York.



image from www.beacon.orgMichelle Bamberger is a veterinarian and the author of two books on first aid for cats and dogs.