Is Fracking Safe Now? What the EPA’s Fracking and Drinking Water Study Really Says

June 5, 2015 | 11:01 am
Gretchen Goldman
Former Contributor

Yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its long-awaited (and heavily scrutinized) report on drinking water impacts from hydraulic fracturing. The report has made headlines, but anyone following the science around fracking impacts shouldn’t be surprised by the results—that hydraulic fracturing has had adverse effects on drinking water sources in several cases, and that risk for future contamination of drinking water exists through several pathways.  Yet, yesterday’s headlines read very differently.

Hydraulic fracturing has adversely impacted drinking water in several places, including Dimock, Pennsylvania shown here.

Hydraulic fracturing has adversely impacted drinking water in several places, including Dimock, Pennsylvania shown here.

Misleading headlines

When the report was released, headlines from news outlets (and even from the EPA’s own press release) had a different message. The agency’s press release begins, Assessment shows hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources.

OK. Fine. This result isn’t surprising if you were following the previous findings around fracking impacts.  Whoever said water quality impacts were systemic? This statement struck me as an odd way to showcase the study. This is like a study reporting teen pregnancy rates leading with the headline “Not every teenage woman pregnant.” OK sure, but that wasn’t the key point of the study.

In reality the EPA study “found specific instances where well integrity and waste water management related to hydraulic fracturing activities impacted drinking water resources.” The report also identified several pathways through which the risk of water contamination exists, including spills, improper well construction, and improper disposal of wastewater.

So what would compel the EPA to lead with such a title?

Here we might remind ourselves that the EPA was under heavy scrutiny from external stakeholders for this study. In fact, some companies blocked the agency’s ability to get the industry information it needed for the study.

This also brings to mind the past times we’ve seen the EPA subject to pressure from external forces. The EPA was poised to conduct investigations around water quality concerns in Dimock, Pennsylvania; Pavillion, Wyoming; and Parker County, Texas. In all three cases, the agency backed down from a full investigation following pushback from the companies involved.

The bigger picture

Stepping back and taking a broader look, we should remember the limitations of this study. First, it only looked at past cases of potential contamination. The agency dropped the originally planned prospective studies which would have provided more information and importantly, could have allowed for baseline testing before drilling occurred, an important tool for scientists studying environmental impacts. In addition, the report only looked at one type of fracking risk—that to drinking water—but we know that hydraulic fracturing poses many other risks, including air quality impacts, seismic activity associated with wastewater disposal, and socioeconomic impacts.

The report acknowledged these and other limitations in the report itself:

Insufficient pre- and post-fracturing data on the quality of drinking water resources; the paucity of long-term systematic studies; the presence of other sources of contamination precluding a definitive link between hydraulic fracturing activities and an impact; and the inaccessibility of some information on hydraulic fracturing activities and potential impacts.

In short, this study was too little too late. The EPA should have stepped into this space some time ago. The pace of oil and gas development in recent years took many communities by surprise and they were left without the tools and information they needed to safeguard against the risks. I am glad to see the EPA take this important first step toward study and oversight of oil and gas development. And I hope the agency quickly builds on this work.  We need more research in this area and I hope the EPA remains rigorous and independent in its studies.

So is fracking safe now?

We need to remember here that the EPA study confirmed risks we know exist around fracking. As I’ve explained before, neither this study nor any scientific study can tell us whether fracking is “safe.” The research can tell us about the risks of activities, but how much risk is acceptable isn’t a question that science can answer. People, communities, and policy makers need to (and have) made those decisions. But they can make those decisions better if they have access to more information about the science. That’s why I’m hoping this study is merely the beginning and the EPA will continue to be engaged in the research and oversight around oil and gas development for the sake of the communities on the frontlines.