Federal regulators have determined that hydraulic fracturing in oil and gas fields can contaminate local drinking water, pleasing state environmentalists who are pushing for more regulation over the fracking industry and drawing criticism from some in energy who say the decision is politically motivated.
The Environmental Protection Agency released a final assessment of the risks of fracking Tuesday. Fracking is the practice of injecting a mix of chemicals at high pressure underground to access hard-to-reach oil and gas deposits.
While it has revolutionized the way industry extracts fossil fuels, it has also drawn criticism from many who cite its dangers. Industry proponents of fracking say it can be done safely.
Now, federal regulators are saying that contamination of groundwater can result from each step of the fracking process, from the injection of fracking fluids into wells to the disposal of produced water. But they also said they lacked historical evidence to determine the severity of the contamination.
The assessment released Tuesday was requested by Congress. Federal regulators hope the study will lay a scientific foundation to guide industry and state regulators when fracking techniques are used or considered.
“This assessment is the most complete compilation to date of national scientific data on the relationship of drinking water resources and hydraulic fracturing,” Thomas Burke, the science adviser and deputy assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Research and Development.
The report was not designed to be a list of documented cases of water contamination from oil and gas activities but an investigation of the potential impacts.
Filling in the gaps
The report details a number of “data gaps” related to fracking historically, such as the lack of before and after study of the chemicals present in groundwater in locations where fracking has taken place. Though the data gaps did not influence the conclusion that fracking can cause harm, it limited regulators’ ability to gauge the severity of historical impacts, according to the EPA statement.
But the report has an omission that has been noted by some environmentalists. In a draft of the report, federal regulators said there was no evidence that fracking had led to “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water in the U.S.”
The omission in the final report pleased those who felt the EPA had been riding the fence on fracking’s impact on water but was criticized by those in the energy industry.
“The revised assessment puts an end to the false narrative of risk-free fracking that has been widely promoted by industry,” said Mark Brownstein, vice president of climate and energy for the Environmental Defense Fund. “It opens the door for policy improvements and scientific advancements that could better protect the people and places most impacted.”
An oil industry spokesman told the Associated Press that the report was an “absurd” reversal that changes a science-based conclusion to one “based in political ambiguity” just weeks before President Barack Obama leaves office.
“The agency has walked away from nearly a thousand sources of information from ... technical reports and peer-reviewed scientific reports demonstrating that ... hydraulic fracturing does not lead to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources,” said Erik Milito of the American Petroleum Institute, an industry lobbying group.
The debate over fracking has been a contentious one in Wyoming, where reports of water contamination in the small town of Pavillion set off years of investigation with conflicting results.
The EPA released a draft report in 2011 stating that Pavillion’s drinking water may have been contaminated by nearby oil and gas operations. A later state investigation, partially paid for by the operator of the gas field, Encana, determined the opposite.
A representative from Encana said he had no comment related to the EPA report but that the company will continue to use best practices and follow regulations regarding fracking and reclamation.
Whatever the federal report has found about fracking risks, Wyoming regulators have made a final conclusion on fracking’s impact in Pavillion, said Doug Hock, for Encana.
“We believe that the (state’s) report confirms that the likelihood of hydraulic fracturing causing any impact to water supply wells in Pavillion is negligible,” Hock said. “That word is taken directly from the report.”
Encana will partnership with Wyoming regulators at the Department of Environmental Quality on suggested remediation efforts, including pit clean up and proper reclamation of wells that go offline.
The state’s conclusion, finalized in November, incited the ire of both the EPA and some local residents.
The Powder River Basin Resource Council, a landowners group, has long criticized the state’s handling of the Pavillion water investigation. The council has called for the state and Encana to make a concerted effort to address continued concerns about oil and gas development’s impact in Pavillion, including seepage from unlined discharge pits and well integrity.
The EPA’s admission that fracking can impact drinking water is a step in the right direction, admitting there is a serious risk with the practice, said Jill Morrison from the council.
“I’m hoping [the EPA’s findings] will (encourage more regulation) because I think it identifies the multiple areas where you can get contamination from that entire process,” Morrison said. “That’s why regulation of oil and gas development is so critical, at so many different stages, and why you have to have inspectors on the ground.”
Representatives for the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which oversees fracking practices, were not available for comment by press time.
The EPA’s decision will not likely impact the Wyoming DEQ, which completed the study on Pavillion’s water, but is not in charge of fracking regulations, said Keith Guille, spokesman for the state agency.
At first glance, the EPA’s findings are not particularly radical, he said.
“Obviously if you don’t do things correctly, you are going to have some impacts, whether that is your air quality or water quality,” Guille said. “That’s why it’s important that when operators go in they follow the rules to ensure that our natural resources are protected. When you don’t, you have a potential that you may impact stuff.”