EPA Report Does Not Conclude That Fracking is Safe

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - The practice of hydraulic fracking has had a substantial impact on many facets of American life. It made the US the world’s top producer of both oil and natural gas in 2014. It has dramatically lowered the cost of these fuels which has been a boon to the economy, both for manufacturers and individuals. It has bolstered the economy of certain regions of the country, particularly in Pennsylvania, North Dakota and Texas, among others. It also has provided some important strategic geo-political advantages in dealing with countries like Russia. The practice has become so widespread, there are now over a million fracking wells sprinkled across the US.

But the practice has been controversial. Toxic chemicals that are used to facilitate the free flow of gas and oil through the pressure-induced cracks in the rock have, in some cases, contaminated drinking water supplies, causing widespread concern about the ultimate wisdom of a practice that critics see as reckless. The news has been filled with stories of protests by citizens, concerned over all these issues, demanding that the practice be banned.  Some cities, towns and counties, as well as the entire state of New York have indeed banned the practice citing these concerns. So have Scotland, Germany, France, and numerous other European regions. Besides the concerns over water contamination, there is also the fact that fracking uses a great deal of water, a particular concern in dry areas, creates air pollution, and, given the abundant supply of suddenly cheap gas, diverts attention and investment away from efficiency, renewables and other efforts to mitigate climate pollution. Furthermore, a joint study conducted by MIT, Stanford University, and the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that the amount of methane leaking into the atmosphere from natural gas operations, was considerably higher than originally thought. Because of the potency of methane as a greenhouse gas (GHG), this finding, according to the authors, negates the advantage, from a GHG perspective, of switching trucks from diesel to natural gas.

There have been two questions hanging over this entire issue. First, how do we, as a society, weigh the advantages of fracking against the many concerns that have been raised? Second, is it possible to extract these resources in other ways that are less dangerous and harmful to the environment?

Many have been waiting for the EPA, who has been studying the matter for four years, to weigh in with a scientifically-based, objective opinion that looks unblinkingly at the environmental concerns and puts them into perspective. Last week the agency issued a draft report, with a carefully worded statement that was sufficiently ambiguous to allow both sides to claim that the findings support their positions.

 For example, the line most often cited by pro-fracking interest says, “We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.” The Wall Street Journal took the liberty to rephrase this, summarizing the 1399 page report with a fragment of a sentence, saying that the agency, “concluded that hydraulic fracturing, as being carried out by industry and regulated by states, isn’t having ‘widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water.’” The publication then amplified that half-truth with an editorial calling Governor Andrew Cuomo’s ban on fracking “a fraud.”

The difference is not a trivial one. Not finding evidence is not the same as concluding anything. This is not a court of law. It is the actual physical world that we live in, not the abstract world of stock exchanges. It doesn’t play the game of ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ The report did not conclude that fracking is safe. What the report did explicitly conclude, was that, “there are above and below ground mechanisms by which hydraulic fracturing activities have the potential to impact drinking water resources.” Specific examples where each of those mechanisms had, in fact caused contamination, were then listed.

Of course, that led the folks on the environmental side to claim victory as well. Earthworks policy director Lauren Pagel said, “Today EPA confirmed what communities living with fracking have known for years; fracking pollutes drinking water.”

According to the NY Times, “EPA officials said the report was not intended to prove whether fracking is safe, but instead was aimed at how state regulators, tribes, local communities and industry can best protect drinking water and reduce the risks of fracking. “

Tom Burke, deputy assistant administrator of EPA's Office of Research and Development, said "It's not a question of safe or unsafe."

As for the reason that evidence was not found, there were many. One was the fact that in some cases, water was found to be contaminated, though it couldn’t be definitively proven whether the contamination came from fracking or something else. In other cases, regulators were denied access to wells, so that they could not be tested. Despite these roadblocks, the agencies found 151 instances of chemical spills at or near wells. That’s a small fraction of the twenty five to thirty thousand new wells added since 2011. But considering that roughly 18 million people either live or get their water from within a mile of a fracking well, what percentage of them should be considered an acceptable level of risk to trade-off against fracking's econmic benefits?

The draft report will now be circulated and opened for a public comment period, meaning that the debate, and the quest for Federal regulation is far from over.

“Today’s announcement will be spun by industry lobbyists as a clean bill of health for oil and gas developers around the country,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona), the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee.  “Nothing could be further from the truth, as EPA’s own findings have shown. Irresponsible oil and gas development puts water quality at risk for millions of Americans, and no amount of spin can change that.”

House members Diana DeGette (D-Colorado), Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-New Jersey) and Paul Tonko (D-New York) issued a joint statement about the report.

 “While the current draft indicates that the overall percentage of contamination cases may be small, it acknowledges there have been contamination events.  When it comes to the water we drink, every instance of contamination must be considered serious. It is also important to note that this study relied on voluntary reporting, which affects both the quality and scope of the data available.  This is an unfortunate consequence of the lack of federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing. Congress must be looking closely at ways to close these data gaps moving forward in order to prevent any further contamination.”

As more information becomes available, this could lead the way to newer, cleaner techniques that could potentially allow us to utilize this resource without putting our precious water supply at risk.

Image credit: Daniel Foster: Flickr Creative Commons