The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has confounded many with a new report saying that fracking does not in fact have a discernably widespread, systemic impact on drinking water.
It did, however, highlight what it called potential “important vulnerabilities to drinking water resources” such as high use of water in areas where it’s not readily available; fracking directly into an aquifer; leaky wells; the discharge of inadequately treated water, and spills.
The findings held something for everyone as environmentalists and industrialists alike claimed victory in the debate. Fracking chemicals have been found, albeit in trace amounts, in drinking water in Pennsylvania. But the EPA’s analysis essentially said that that’s the exception rather than the rule. The findings were interpreted differently, depending on the group doing the analysis. Environmental groups said it was proof that fracking is dangerous, while those who support fracking said it demonstrated exactly the opposite.
“The E.P.A.’s water quality study confirms what millions of Americans already know—that dirty oil and gas fracking contaminates drinking water,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune to The New York Times.
The Center for Biological Diversity noted that the EPA had had trouble obtaining some of its data due to a lack of cooperation from oil companies.
“The EPA found disturbing evidence of fracking polluting our water despite not looking very hard,” said Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity in a statement. “This study was hobbled by the oil and gas industry’s refusal to provide key data.”
But fracking proponents said it showed that fears over the controversial practice of injecting chemical-laced water between layers of shale to extract oil and gas are unfounded when it comes to water.
"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," said Erik Milito, upstream group director of the American Petroleum Institute, told the Associated Press.
It is the third study to find that fracking does not contaminate drinking water. In 2013 the U.S. Department of Energy found, after monitoring a Pennsylvania aquifer near the Marcellus shale, that there were no traces of the fluids—meaning that the wastewater injected 8,000 feet underground stayed where it was, rather than rising to mingle with the aquifer waters.
And the previous year, a study released in February 2012 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), found that it’s lapses in best practices that cause fracking mishaps and contamination, not any inherent problem with the process itself.
Theh day following the EPA study release, California’s top conservation official resigned after being named in a lawsuit targeting regulators who had allegedly looked the other way when oil companies injected wastewater directly into aquifers in the central part of the state.
Mark Nechodom resigned as director of the California Department of Conservation on Thursday June 4 without giving a reason, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“Put this one in the awkward file: just hours after the EPA released yet another massive study (literally, at just under 1000 pages) which found no evidence that fracking led to widespread pollution of drinking water (an outcome welcome by the oil industry and its backers and criticized by environmental groups), the director of the California Department of Conservation, which oversees the agency that regulates the state's oil and gas industry, resigned as the culmination of a scandal over the contamination of California's water supply by fracking wastewater dumping,” wrote the news website Zerohedge.com, putting the alleged transgression in boldface.
Earlier this year the U.S. Department of the Interior issued a rule to make fracking safe and sustainable—and was promptly sued by four states for making the regulations too restrictive.
The June 4 report issued by the EPA was intended to provide guidelines in how to protect the public good while extracting energy, the agency said.
“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,” said Thomas Burke, EPA’s Science Advisor and Deputy Assistant Administrator of EPA’s Office of Research and Development, in a statement. “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.”