natural gasGuest Commentary

by Chelsie Kidd, a 2015 Judge K.K. Legett Fellow at the Washington Legal Foundation and a student at Texas Tech School of Law.

On June 4, 2015 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a much anticipated draft assessment of the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources. The draft assessment was conducted in response to Congress’s request to study the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water resources.

For decades, the oil and gas industry has utilized hydraulic fracturing, also called “fracing” or “fracking,” to increase oil and gas production from shale formations that could not otherwise be profitably mined. Opponents to hydraulic fracturing have focused on the actual process, when the mixture of water and proppant (commonly sand), and a small amount of chemicals, is injected underground. Fracturing’s purported impact on potable water has figured prominently in activists’ demonization campaigns. When he’s not busy playing an angst-ridden scientist with anger issues, actor Mark Ruffalo is writing unscientifically about how fracturing makes our water flammable. Propaganda film Gasland included a since-debunked image of tap water being set on fire. Opponents have advocated for cities and states to ban hydraulic fracturing outright. As a result, two states with natural gas resources—New York and Maryland—have respectively banned the practice and put in place a fracking moratorium. In California, a lawsuit has even been filed against the state under anti-discrimination law for allowing fracturing in a manner that supposedly has a disparate impact on minority children.

Influenced by the activists’ scare tactics, Congress urged EPA to study the impacts hydraulic fracturing has had on drinking water resources. The draft assessment took five years to complete and Dr. Thomas A. Burke, EPA’s Science Advisor and Deputy Assistant Administrator of EPA’s Office of Research and Development, stated that it “is the most complete compilation of scientific data to date, including over 950 sources of information, published papers, numerous technical reports, information from stakeholders and peer-reviewed EPA scientific reports.” Furthermore, EPA stated that the draft assessment “benefited from extensive stakeholder engagement conducted across the country with states, tribes, industry, non-governmental organizations, the scientific community and the public to ensure that the draft assessment reflects current practices in hydraulic fracturing and utilizes all data and information available to the agency.” However, the draft assessment will be subject to public comment and a review from the agency’s Science Advisory Board before it can be finalized.

In order to determine what impact hydraulic fracturing has had on drinking water, EPA analyzed the water used for hydraulic fracturing from water acquisition, chemical mixing at the well pad site, well injection of fracking fluids, the collection of hydraulic fracturing wastewater (including flowback and produced water), and wastewater treatment and disposal.  EPA concluded that the mechanisms used for hydraulic fracturing have not led to “widespread, systematic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.” In addition, EPA found that the number of identified cases where drinking water resources were impacted is small relative to the number of hydraulically-fractured wells. And in the comparatively few cases where drinking water has been affected, that has been due to leaks at the well head and not from problems underground where the fracturing actually takes place.

While EPA’s draft assessment has not been finalized and doesn’t recommend any specific action to be taken, it has lent significant credibility to the case proponents of fracturing make that “economic development and environmental safety can and do [co]exist peacefully.” It has also put activists on the defensive, forcing them to make insubstantial claims about the study’s supposed vulnerabilities.

Overall, the draft assessment’s ultimate findings are a significant positive development for supporters of hydraulic fracturing. Over one million have been hydraulically fractured since the 1940s and “the most complete compilation of scientific data to date” has now found that these wells have not had a widespread, systematic impact on drinking water resources.

The activists are not likely to go away quietly, but it’s nice to see that good science is on the side of domestic energy development.