A long-awaited Environmental Protection Agency report released Thursday found no signs of “widespread, systemic” drinking-water pollution caused by fracking — a conclusion that offers a victory to the oil and gas industry and a major blow to a wave of grass-roots anti-drilling movements sprouting across the country.
The results of EPA’s years-long fracking study should bolster natural gas producers, who have benefited from Obama administration climate and environmental policies that have shrunk the coal industry’s hold on the electricity industry. The findings also touch on one of the great paradoxes of Barack Obama’s presidency, in which he has championed an ambitious green-energy agenda while loudly hailing the benefits of the fracking-spurred oil and gas boom.
The oil and gas industry was quick to praise the report, while green groups seized on EPA’s acknowledgment that it has found isolated incidents in which water pollution can be blamed on fracking.
“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, a director at the American Petroleum Institute. “Hydraulic fracturing is being done safely under the strong environmental stewardship of state regulators and industry best practices.”
The green group Earthworks said it was drawing the opposite conclusion. “Today EPA confirmed what communities living with fracking have known for years, fracking pollutes drinking water,” the group’s policy director, Lauren Pagel, said in a statement. “Now the Obama administration, Congress, and state governments must act on that information to protect our drinking water, and stop perpetuating the oil and gas industry’s myth that fracking is safe.”
Fracking, which saw major technical advances in the past decade, uses high-pressure injections of water and chemicals underground to break up rock formations and free trapped oil and gas supplies. The technique has helped turn the U.S. into an energy superpower, but it’s also set off a wave of attacks from greens and other local activists.
Fueled by the Oscar-nominated 2010 documentary “Gasland,” which told the story of a flaming tap-water and well-water contamination in a Pennsylvania town, communities across the country have enacted fracking bans — including the state of New York as well as Pittsburgh and Denton, Texas. Scientists have also raised concerns about the greenhouse-gas impacts of methane leaks from gas drilling sites, and about a spread of small-scale earthquakes apparently linked to the underground disposal of fracking waste.
But environmentalists have had little success in curbing fracking on a large scale — and have been unable to get either Obama or Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton to embrace their cause. Clinton has hailed natural gas as playing “an important bridge role in the transition to a cleaner energy economy,” despite calling for curbs on methane leaks. Obama has repeatedly praised the gas boom, including during his State of the Union addresses, and has even lumped together “wind, solar and natural gas” as the centerpieces of the nation’s energy strategy.
Natural gas dovetails with Obama’s climate agenda because the fuel generally produces half the greenhouse gas impact of coal. But some green groups dismiss gas as a crutch, saying the U.S. should be moving faster to carbon-free energy sources like solar and wind.
The EPA’s findings do not fully dismiss environmentalists’ concerns that fracking could imperil the water supply, pointing to “potential vulnerabilities in the water lifecycle that could impact drinking water” — along with “specific instances where one or more of these mechanisms led to impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells.”
Still, the EPA said: “We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States. … The number of identified cases where drinking water resources were impacted are small relative to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.”
The agency acknowledged that lack of data may lead to the risks being underestimated.
Among the possible areas of risk from fracking, according to EPA’s study, are “water withdrawals in areas with low water availability; hydraulic fracturing conducted directly into formations containing drinking water resources; inadequately cased or cemented wells resulting in below ground migration of gases and liquids; inadequately treated wastewater discharged into drinking water resources; and spills of hydraulic fluids and hydraulic fracturing wastewater, including flowback and produced water.”
The EPA study, first requested by Congress during the fiscal 2010 appropriations cycle, is not designed to evaluate the effectiveness of existing fracking regulations or suggest new rules for the practice. The agency conducted a comprehensive peer review of existing studies on fracking’s drinking-water impacts.