After years of research, the Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday it could not definitively say whether fracking poses a “systemic” threat to drinking water supplies, offering no clear answer to perhaps the most important question around the drilling technique.
The agency’s final report on fracking, which comes as the Obama administration prepares to hand over power to president-elect Donald Trump, blamed “data gaps” for its lack of a firm conclusion. Fracking has fueled the U.S. oil-and-natural gas boom and will find a friend in the incoming Trump administration, which appears poised to ramp up domestic energy development.
While the exhaustive EPA study identified several scenarios in which fracking could impact drinking water, it did not say whether the process is inherently dangerous, as environmental activists and many Democrats on Capitol Hill long have claimed.
The reaction from oil-and-gas industry groups was mixed, with some organizations praising the report as proof that fracking was safe, and others claiming the EPA was intentionally casting a cloud over the practice without firm evidence.
At the heart of the matter is one sentence from the EPA’s draft version of the study, released last year, that was deleted from the final version.
The draft report said that the EPA did not have evidence of “systemic impacts” on water, leading oil-and-gas proponents to claim victory. But agency officials said they can no longer make that claim.
“EPA scientists chose not to include this sentence in the final assessment released today,” Thomas A. Burke, EPA’s deputy assistant administrator and science adviser, told reporters on a conference call Tuesday morning. “EPA scientists concluded the sentence could not be quantitatively supported.”
The EPA did identify conditions under which fracking — the process of injecting huge volumes of water and chemicals into the ground to break apart rock and release trapped oil or natural gas — can impact water supplies. The agency said areas with low water availability can be at risk; that spills at fracking sites can affect drinking water; that the discharge of inadequately treated fracking wastewater can affect drinking water supplies; and other conclusions.
But the agency also stressed that its study “was not designed to be a list of documented impacts,” and Mr. Burke said that, despite the years of research the EPA has conducted, there still isn’t enough information.
“Comprehensive information on the location of activities in the hydraulic fracturing cycle is lacking,” he said. “There is little data available on water quality or the presence of fracking-related chemicals before, during, or prior to hydraulic fracturing activities.”
Some environmentalists said the final EPA report accurately said that fracking can be dangerous if the proper safeguards aren’t followed. They used the report to push for more regulations on the practice at the state and local levels.
“The industry and EPA know as well as anyone else that spills, leaks, and faulty well construction can pollute air, water, and land. To pretend that there is no risk, and therefore no need for safeguards to protect communities and continuously improve state regulations to keep pace with evolving field practices, runs contrary to the huge body of evidence EPA reviewed,” said Mark Brownstein, vice president of climate and energy at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Without a firm, easy-to-understand conclusion, reaction from the oil-and-gas industry has varied, with some claiming vindication and others claiming the Obama administration is raising unfair questions about fracking during its final days.
The American Petroleum Institute blasted the fact that the EPA removed its claim that fracking poses no systemic threat to water.
“It is beyond absurd for the administration to reverse course on its way out the door,” API Upstream Director Erik Milito said in a statement. “The agency has walked away from nearly a thousand sources of information from published papers, technical reports and peer reviewed scientific reports demonstrating that industry practices, industry trends, and regulatory programs protect water resources at every step of the hydraulic fracturing process. Decisions like this amplify the public’s frustrations with Washington.”
But other oil-and-gas groups celebrated the findings and zeroed in on the EPA’s inability to say that fracking actually threatens drinking water.
“After five years of study, EPA found nothing to substantiate the claim that fracking causes widespread water contamination. With the release of this report, we can finally put to rest the idea that fracking poses a serious risk to groundwater,” Steve Everley, spokesman for the pro-natural gas group North Texans for Natural Gas, said in a statement.