The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has concluded that fracking does not result in long-term damages to drinking water. While the oil and gas industry feels vindicated, environmentalists say that the study lacked key data. The agency admits that future damage cannot be ruled out. John Dyer reports from Boston.
Fracking does not inflict widespread damage on water supplies, but isolated pollution from fracking remains problematic, according to a draft study by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Authorities warn threat remains
“Hydraulic fracturing activities in the U.S. are carried out in a way that have not led to widespread, systematic impact on drinking water resources,” said EPA deputy assistant administrator Thomas Burke at a news conference last Thursday. “In fact, the number of documented impacts to drinking water is relatively low when compared to the number of fractured wells.”
But the agency’s study found that the controversial process of injecting water and chemicals under high pressure deep underground to extract oil and gas from rock formations could threaten wells and aquifers in the future. “Water sources may be vulnerable to impacts, and these vulnerabilities should be considered,” said Burke.
The EPA study showed that fracking is widespread throughout US. Around 5.67 million litres of water is injected a underground everyday on average. Fracking operators drilled as many as 30,000 new fracking wells between 20011 and 2014 in 25 states around the country. Between 2000 and 2013, around 9.4 million people lived near 6,800 drinking water sources that were within 1.6 kilometres of a fractured well.
Industry feels vindicated
Congress ordered the EPA to embark on the study in 2010. After an 85-day comment period, EPA officials will finalise the draft.
Burke and his colleagues hope the study will help quell the intense debates in the US between pro and anti-fracking activists. While fracking has created economic boomlets in states like North Dakota, officials in New York State have banned fracking out of fears of groundwater contamination. Burke said that the study will give state authorities, communities and industry a critical resource to base decisions on.
But the opposite seems to be happening as the study is further fanning the flames of the debate of the issue. Proponents and critics of fracking both said that the study vindicated their points of view.
“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,” said Erik Milito, from the American Petroleum Institute, a trade and lobbying group. “Hydraulic fracturing is being done safely under the strong environmental stewardship of state regulators and industry best practices.”
Environmentalists criticise the study
Environmentalists said that while the EPA’s study was likely the most comprehensive on fracking and drinking water to date, it nonetheless lacked information that the oil industry refused to give government scientists – data that would have painted a clearer picture of whether contamination found in drinking water stemmed from fracking or other sources of pollution.
“This study was hobbled by the oil industry’s refusal to provide key data,” said Kassie Siegel, an Oakland, California-based attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, an activist group. “The EPA found disturbing evidence of fracking polluting our water despite not looking very hard.”
Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune seized on portions of the report that clearly state the danger to water bodies from fracking, like the dangers from spills of fracking wastewater. “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 Brune.
Stanford University Earth Sciences Professor Rob Jackson, who has studied the environmental impacts of fracking, said the EPA’s report lacked data that would have improved its findings. But he agreed with its overall thrust, at least at current levels of fracking nationwide. “The major conclusion is that water contamination isn’t widespread, and I think that is reasonable,” said Jackson.
Photo credit: Faces of Fracking, flickr/Creative Commons