Five years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was commissioned by Congress to undertake a study on the impacts of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on drinking water. This newer method of oil and gas extraction involves the pumping of highly pressurized water, sand and chemicals into underground rock formations.
Fracking has driven the boom in U.S. oil production and contributed to the steep drop in gasoline prices, but the environmental impacts of this relatively new technique are not well understood.
The EPA’s draft study—released in June to solicit input from advisers and the public—found that fracking has already contaminated drinking water, stating in the report:
“We found specific instances where one or more mechanisms led to impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells…
Approximately 6,800 sources of drinking water for public water systems were located within one mile of at least one hydraulically fractured well … These drinking water sources served more than 8.6 million people year-round in 2013…
Hydraulic fracturing can also affect drinking water resources outside the immediate vicinity of a hydraulically fractured well.”
Despite these findings, and EPA’s own admissions of “data limitations and uncertainties” as well as “the paucity of long-term systemic studies,” the agency stated in its conclusion that “there is no evidence fracking has led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources.”
Industry hacks and their MSM cheerleaders took this line and ran with it, proclaiming that “the science is settled” on fracking and any further concerns are just crazed environmental activists pursuing an agenda.
However, it turns out that the EPA’s own science advisers have repudiated the study’s major conclusion, saying that it is “inconsistent with the observations, data and levels of uncertainty.”
“Major findings are ambiguous or are inconsistent with the observations/data presented in the body of the report,” the 31-member scientific review board said on Thursday. The panel will have a public teleconference on Feb. 1 before sending its final recommendations to EPA.
The conclusion of the draft report had already drawn suspicion of political tampering. Adding to this is the fact that EPA left out high-profile cases in Pennsylvania, Texas and Wyoming “where hydraulic fracturing activities are perceived by many members of the public to have caused significant local impacts to drinking water sources.”
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The EPA draft report also found that failed wells and aboveground spills may have affected drinking water resources. It found evidence of more than 36,000 spills from 2006 to 2012. According to Bloomberg:
“Spill data alone "gives sufficient pause to reconsider the statement” that there’s no evidence of systemic, widespread damage, said panelist Bruce Honeyman, professor emeritus at the Colorado School of Mines.
"It’s important to characterize and discuss the frequency and severity of outliers that have occurred,” said panelist Katherine Bennett Ensor, chairwoman of the Rice University Department of Statistics.
And panel member James Bruckner, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Georgia, said the report glosses over the limited data and studies available to the agency.
"I do not think that the document’s authors have gone far enough to emphasize how preliminary these key conclusions are and how limited the factual bases are for their judgments," Bruckner said.
Young, the University of California professor who suggested rewriting the top-line conclusion, faulted the document for trying “to draw a global and permanent conclusion about the safety or impacts of hydraulic fracturing at the national level” given the “uncertainties and data limitations described in the report."”
In light of these criticisms, there will be heavy pressure to revise the EPA’s conclusion in the final report, and the oil and gas industry will have major egg on its face.
The fact is, fracking was fast-tracked into use before the environmental impacts could be properly assessed. Public health and environmental quality took a back seat to the profits of an industry that long ago cemented its grip on federal and state governments.
The oil and gas industry tried their hardest, with the help of government agencies, to keep the identity of fracking fluids from becoming public knowledge. But as that information has come out, we are finding that these chemicals pose catastrophic risks to human health, as a study by the Yale School of Public Health points out.
“In an analysis of more than 1,000 chemicals in fluids used in and created by hydraulic fracturing (fracking), Yale School of Public Health researchers found that many of the substances have been linked to reproductive and developmental health problems, and the majority had undetermined toxicity due to insufficient information.
Further exposure and epidemiological studies are urgently needed to evaluate potential threats to human health from chemicals found in fracking fluids and wastewater created by fracking.”
Contamination of drinking water is not the only threat that fracking poses. Oklahoma, which has gone full speed ahead with fracking operations, has seen a 730 percent increase in earthquake activity since 2013. Since the start of the new year, 69 earthquakes have struck, with two registering a magnitude of 4.7 and 4.8.
The state’s own Geological Survey admitted, “we know that the recent rise in earthquakes cannot be entirely attributed to natural causes.” They say the earthquakes are caused by wastewater injection wells, not fracking, but this is dubious considering the tremendous influence of the oil and gas industry in that state.
A report released last year by a group of seismologists, researchers, and oil and gas industry representatives “overwhelming connected hydro fracturing to the surge in earthquakes.”
It is past time for government to stop endangering public and environmental health by protecting the fossil fuel industry with bogus conclusions in its risk assessments.