EPA Examines Hydraulic Fracturing

Last month, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a long-awaited study concerning the potential impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water. The US Congress had ordered the study in 2010 based on public concerns that the technique, rapidly growing in use, was causing environmental problems, including threats to water supplies.

The report took a relatively balanced approach, noting that there have been some problems, but they have been small in scale compared with the number of wells fractured during the study period. “We did not find evidence that these mechanisms (hydraulic fracturing) have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States,” the study said. “Of the potential mechanisms identified in this report, we found specific instances where one or more mechanisms led to impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells. The number of identified cases, however, was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.”

Different groups saw the study’s conclusions differently, with the bias in the eye of the beholder. A brief survey of website and newspaper headlines bears this out:

  • EPA: Fracking Tainted Drinking Water, but Problems Not Widespread (U.S. News & World Report)
  • EPA report: Fracking no harm to drinking water (Florida Times-Union)
  • EPA: Fracking poses risk to water supply (Albany Times Union)
  • EPA Fracking Report Leaves Both Sides Claiming Victory (OilPrice.com)
  • EPA says new study doesn’t show fracking is safe (Charleston Gazette)

In the study, the EPA examined more than 3,500 published technical papers, journal articles, and industry articles, as well as reports done by federal and state governments, nongovernmental organizations, and industry groups. EPA officials also said they conducted additional tests and research, which led to more than 20 peer-reviewed papers. This is not the final version of the report, titled “Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources.” The draft is now available for public comment and will be reviewed by a board of scientists, with the final report due next year. An executive summary and the full report can be found at www2.epa.gov/hfstudy.

This is one of many reports likely to be issued over the next several years on hydraulic fracturing and its effect on the environment and surrounding communities. In addition to water, concerns have been raised about fracturing’s relationship to earthquakes and air emissions. Over the past year, JPT has been publishing a series titled “Beyond the Headlines” that attempts to put industry issues such as fracturing in perspective. Among the topics addressed so far include wastewater disposal, earthquakes, well construction practices, and the amount of water used in fracturing. These columns can be found in JPT’s archives online at www.spe.org/jpt/. Additional resources about hydraulic fracturing practices are available on SPE’s energy4me.org website.

EPA Examines Hydraulic Fracturing

John Donnelly, JPT Editor

01 July 2015

Volume: 67 | Issue: 7

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