Why new EPA report is unlikely to settle fracking debate

Supporters and opponents of fracking have both claimed victory from the report, which found isolated incidents of water contamination but concluded the problems weren't widespread or systemic.

Keith Srakocic/AP/File
A crew works on a gas drilling rig at a well site for shale-based natural gas in Zelienople, Pa., June 25, 2012. The oil and gas drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," has mobilized thousands of people around the country both for and against the process. Hydraulic fracturing to drill for oil and natural gas has not caused widespread harm to drinking water in the US, the Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday in a draft report.

A new, comprehensive government report on the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing is unlikely to settle the debate over the safety of the process, as both supporters and opponents say the report's conclusions support their views.

The 998-page report from the US Environmental Protection Agency investigated allegations that the hydraulic fracturing method – commonly referred to as fracking – can contaminate local drinking water resources. The method – in which a mix of water and chemicals is injected into the earth to crack open previously unreachable oil and gas deposits – has led to a surge in domestic natural gas production, which burns cleaner than other fossil fuels and could help reduce carbon dioxide emissions that are contributing to global climate change.

Congress requested the report in 2010, and it ultimately cost nearly $30 million to produce. The investigators reviewed more than 950 sources of information on the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water sources, including scientific journals, reports from federal and state governments, nongovernmental organizations, and industry publications. The EPA said the study method followed five main stages of the fracking water cycle – from the withdrawal of ground or surface water and its mixing with injection chemicals, to its injection into the bedrock and eventual extraction and disposal.

The report concluded that, while fracking has the potential to affect drinking water sources, there wasn't evidence that the methods "have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States."

The study did find specific cases where fracking mechanisms affected nearby drinking water sources, but added that "the number of identified cases ... was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells."

The findings were greeted with enthusiasm by the oil and gas industry.

Shawn Bennett of the Ohio Oil & Gas Association says the study confirms that fracking is "a scientifically sound and well-regulated" process.

"Hopefully our detractors will recognize the study’s findings and embrace this process which is vital to providing tens of thousands of jobs as well as provid[ing] abundant, low-cost, clean-burning energy for Ohio residents across the state," said Mr. Bennett, according to the Akron Beacon Journal.

Erik Milito, a director at the American Petroleum Institute, said the EPA report confirms "what the oil and gas industry has known," according to a statement from the industry lobby group.

"Hydraulic fracturing has been used safely in over a million wells, resulting in America’s rise as a global energy superpower, growth in energy investments, wages, and new jobs," added Mr. Milito in the statement.

Environmental groups have countered that the isolated incidents of contamination confirm their fears about the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing.

John Noël, of the group Clean Water Action, said in a statement that the report "smashes the myth that there can be oil and gas development without impacts to drinking water."

Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that the EPA study, "while limited, shows fracking can and has impacted drinking water sources in many different ways," according to the Beacon Journal.

The EPA report acknowledges that the findings may be due to a lack of data collected, inaccessible information, a scarcity of long-term systematic and base-line studies, and other factors. Bloomberg reported that EPA couldn't come to terms with energy companies including Range Resources Corp. and Chesapeake Energy to conduct water tests near their wells before and after they were fracked, meaning if the agency did find instances of contamination, it was harder to prove that fracking was the cause.

"These elements significantly limit EPA’s ability to determine the actual frequency of impacts," the agency said in a fact sheet released with the report.

Ms. Mall added that more science will be necessary to fully understand all the risks of fracking.

"Despite the holes, it is clear EPA has found impacts. They just cannot be sure how widespread those impacts are," she said, according to the Beacon Journal.

President Obama has supported the use of natural gas as part of his "all of the above" energy strategy, but in March he issued new regulations for fracking on public lands. Most oil and gas production occurs on private lands, however, and in the wake of the EPA report, experts say any further regulations from the Obama administration are even less likely.

"The EPA fracking study does not appear likely to spur additional federal water regulation beyond initiatives that are already in process,” said Kevin Book, an analyst at ClearView Energy Partners, according to Bloomberg.

US natural gas production has soared this decade from almost 19 trillion cubic feet in 2005 to more than 27 trillion cubic feet, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Domestic carbon dioxide emissions are expected to increase by 1.5 percent between 2005 and 2020, according to a report from the State Department. As of January 2012, the EIA estimated there were about 2,266 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable natural gas in the country.

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