The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently issued a draft report on hydraulic fracturing, concluding that there is no evidence that fracking has “led to widespread, systemic impact on drinking water resources in the United States.”  We have posted about fracking issues before, and many predictions of fracking-related litigation have rested on assumptions rejected by the report.  

The 1000-page "Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resourcessynthesizes available scientific literature and data to assess the potential for hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas to change the quality or quantity of drinking water resources, and identifies factors affecting the frequency or severity of any potential changes. This report is to be used by federal, tribal, state, and local officials, industry, and the public to better understand and address any potential vulnerabilities of drinking water resources to hydraulic fracturing activities.

Congress requested the report in 2010, so no one can say EPA rushed the process.  While there are theoretical mechanisms by which fracking-related activities “have the potential to impact drinking water resources,” the number of actual, identified cases of impact was extremely small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells in operation. (Somewhere around 30,000 new wells are being drilled annually.)

This assessment relied on relevant scientific literature and data. Literature evaluated included articles published in science and engineering journals, federal and state government reports, nongovernmental organization (NGO) reports, and industry publications. Data sources examined included federal- and state-collected data sets, databases maintained by federal and state government agencies, other publicly-available data and information, and data, including confidential and non-confidential business information, submitted by industry to the EPA.

The report evaluated the various stages of the water cycle used in hydraulic fracturing activities, including water acquisition, chemical mixing at the well pad site, well injection of fracking fluids, the collection of hydraulic fracturing wastewater and wastewater treatment and disposal. The report also confirms the growing consensus that fugitive gas or fluid migration through fractures at depth (that is, the actual hydraulic fracturing process) cannot result in groundwater contamination.

Fracking technology has promised true energy independence, and provided an economic boom to many key aspects of the economy. Hydraulic fracturing supports more than 2 million U.S. jobs, has increased supplies of oil and natural gas, and has helped to put downward pressure on energy prices. It also has strengthened America’s energy security and geopolitical position.

The EPA does report various ways to mitigate some of the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing activities, including with respect to well construction. The API responded that hydraulic fracturing is being done safely under the strong environmental stewardship of state regulators and industry best practices. From 2009 to 2013, while the EPA was conducting this study, state agencies finalized an estimated 82 groundwater-related rules for oil and gas production, including hundreds of discrete rule changes, according to the Ground Water Protection Council. Continuous safety improvements have been an ongoing part of hydraulic fracturing for 65 years, said API.  

The draft EPA report is open for comment, and peer review by the Science Advisory Board.