We have all heard the oft-repeated statement from proponents of unconventional oil and gas development that “hydraulic fracturing does not cause water contamination.” It has come up in relation to controversies over EPA studies in Pavillion, Wyoming, and, most recently, Dimock, Pennsylvania. It has even come up at congressional hearings, where senators were distracted from the more important issue of contamination by the difficulty of pinning down expert witnesses on a simple definition of their terms — whether so-called “fracking” refers to a specific step in the process of extracting oil and gas or more broadly to all of the operations and activities involved.
As much as I love words, it is a sorry sign of the state of the public dialogue over questions about the safety of our water and the future of our energy supply— science-based questions of rising national importance — that we are reduced to quibbling over language. So, let me deliberately set aside semantics and restate what ought to be a simple and straightforward question: “Does fracking, whether as a specific step in the overall process of oil and gas extraction or as a set of related activities and operations, cause water contamination?”
More than a few complaints
I am not going to answer this question here, but I will go so far as to reaffirm that it is a legitimate question to ask—one we should be asking. We know that there have been more than a few complaints about accidents and spills. And we know that peer-reviewed scientific studies published in 2013 from teams at Duke University and the University of Texas at Arlington have found evidence of elevated levels of methane and arsenic, among other chemicals, in groundwater near fracking sites.
These studies highlight the need for more research and better regulatory oversight. But—adding to the list of things we do know about hydraulic fracturing—we also know that the EPA has a dubious record of investigating complaints.
Following a 2004 EPA study that concluded, “the injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into coalbed methane wells poses little or no threat to USDWs [underground sources of drinking water],” an EPA scientist and whistleblower called the study “scientifically unsound,” noting that “five of the seven members of the [peer-review] panel appear to have conflicts of interest and may benefit from the EPA’s decision.” In 2011, the EPA released a study on possible drinking water contamination in Pavillion, Wyoming, and concluded that the data indicated “likely impact to ground water that can be explained by hydraulic fracturing.” When the study was met with strong criticism from industry, the EPA said it would carry out further testing, but in 2013, the agency decided to withdraw, leaving the case to the state.
Now, just last month, the EPA announced the results of a study it had been conducting in Dimock, Pennsylvania. The agency’s press release on July 25 optimistically announced that the study had “determined that there are not levels of contaminants present that would require additional action by the Agency.” This should have been reassuring, right?
EPA: Leaked documents and mixed messages
Unfortunately, a leaked EPA PowerPoint presentation indicated very different conclusions from those stated in the press release. What exactly did this document disclose? Decide for yourself. The concluding slide reads as follows:
- Methane is released during the drilling and perhaps during the fracking process and other gas well work.
- Methane is at significantly higher concentrations in the aquifers after gas drilling and perhaps as a result of fracking and other gas well work.
- The methane migrating into the aquifer is both from the shallower (younger age) formations and older Marcellus Shale (and perhaps even older formations).
- Methane and other gases released during drilling (including air from the drilling) apparently cause significant damage to the water quality.
- In some cases the aquifers recover (under a year) but, in others cases the damage is long term (greater than 3 years).
The need for transparency
To move the public discussion forward, the need for information is paramount, as is the vital role of federal agencies in providing it. But given this latest censoring on the part of the EPA, we have very little assurance that agencies are living up to their role. Why is it that so many efforts to gain more information — particularly those efforts initiated by government agencies tasked with protecting the public interest — run up against repeated obstacles?
What we need today is transparency — both from the oil and gas industry and from our federal agencies tasked with regulating it. Without transparency, the public cannot hold key players accountable. Without accountability, we cannot trust decision makers. And without trust, we are resigned to fear. When we make decisions out of fear instead of knowledge, our democracy suffers, as do the communities that comprise it and the individuals who must live with the consequences.
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