The U.S. EPA found in its final report on hydraulic fracturing that the practice "can impact drinking water resources in the United States under some circumstances," following the advice of its scientific review panel despite the intense opposition of the oil and gas industry.
That wording marked a departure from the original draft of the study, produced in 2015, which said fracking represented no "widespread, systemic" risk to the nation's drinking water supplies.
The panel subsequently voted 26-4 to recommend that the blanket conclusion be softened, noting that there while there was no evidence that fracking is a generic threat to water, there was not enough data to say fracking is not a threat, given the number of local pollution incidents in the data.
The EPA's study noted that when looking at the entire life cycle of water and shale extraction, fracking tainted local drinking water sources through surface spills, accidents, poorly constructed wells and improper waste disposal.
But the EPA stopped short of making any general conclusions in the report, issued after five years of study and multiple public hearings, regarding fracking's impact on drinking water on a widespread basis. "EPA identified conditions under which impacts from hydraulic fracturing activities can be more frequent or severe," the agency said with the report's release. "The report also identifies uncertainties and data gaps. These uncertainties and data gaps limited EPA's ability to fully assess impacts to drinking water resources both locally and nationally."
"Because of the significant data gaps and uncertainties in the available data, 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," the final draft of the report said. "Our inability to quantitatively determine a national impact frequency or to characterize the severity of impacts, however, did not prevent us from qualitatively describing factors that affect the frequency or severity of impacts at the local level."
The EPA said local regulators can reduce the impacts of fracking on drinking water by paying closer attention to practices surrounding chemical handling on the surface, well construction, and the treatment and disposal of wastewater.
The tentative finding of no "widespread, systemic" risks to water, which cheered the E&P industry when the draft report was released in June 2015, was apparently added at the last minute by unknown EPA officials after meetings with the White House, according to a recent report by American Public Media. At the time, the White House was preparing to issue its Clean Power Plan, which relies heavily on large supplies of natural gas to fuel the power generation as coal plants retire to meet emissions limits.
"It is beyond absurd for the administration to reverse course on its way out the door," American Petroleum Institute Upstream Director Erik Milito said. "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."
Scott Segal, an attorney at Bracewell LLP who testified before the scientific review panel in support of the finding of no "widespread, systemic" risks, took solace in noting that the report did not find a wide threat to drinking water. Bracewell has a number of energy industry clients and lobbies for the industry in Washington, D.C.
"Even the new statement is still consistent with the finding that contamination attributable to shale development is neither widespread nor systemic," Segal said. "Evidence of contamination is highly anecdotal and often overblown by the exaggeration often associated with litigation."
While the industry worked hard to make lemonade out of a sudden bag of lemons, some in the environmental community read the report as an outright condemnation of fracking. "The Sierra Club applauds the EPA for its science-based fracking report, confirming what so many already knew; fracking presents a clear and present threat to our water, our public health, and our communities," the environmental group said in a statement.
"For far too long, communities around the country have faced the daily threat of contaminated water, earthquakes, and an uncertain future due to fracking, all while oil and gas companies peddled the false claim that the process was safe," the Sierra Club said. "Today's report ends this charade. No longer will families be told a lie as their health and safety are threatened."