The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created a stir in mid-December 2016 when it released the final version of its report titled “Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas: Impacts from the Hydraulic Fracturing Water Cycle on Drinking Water Resources in the United States.” In the final version of the report, the EPA admits that fracking “can impact drinking water resources under some circumstances [and] impacts can range in frequency and severity depending on the combination of hydraulic fracturing water cycle activities and local- or regional-scale factors.” Fracking involves the pumping of water and other chemicals at high speeds into underground formations (such as shale) to cause fractures within the formation, thus allowing the minerals trapped within to move more easily to the well-bore. Fracking drastically increases production and unlocks minerals that were previously thought to be beyond recovery. In fact, fracking has played an integral part in making America more energy independent.
The final report, which is the result of a five-year study that began in 2010 after a congressional request, underwent a significant change from the way it was initially presented in 2015. There, the EPA found “no evidence that fracking systematically contaminates water” supplies. This sentence created a controversy ultimately ending with the EPA retracting it from the final report. According to Thomas A. Burke, EPA’s science adviser and a deputy assistant administrator of the agency’s Office of Research and Development, “EPA scientists chose not to include that sentence. The scientists concluded it could not be quantitatively supported.” News agencies such as CNBC quickly noted that the final report found effects on drinking water at each stage of the fracking cycle, from acquisition to disposal. However, it is also worth noting that the EPA itself noted that “data gaps and uncertainties” limited its ability to draw additional conclusions about impacts on drinking water resources from fracking activities.
Ultimately, the report recommends that decision-makers should focus on the combination of factors that cause more impact than others. Such factors include, but are not limited to, (1) water withdrawals for hydraulic fracturing in times or areas of low water availability, particularly in areas with limited or declining groundwater; (2) spills during management of hydraulic fracturing fluids and chemicals or produced water; and (3) injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into wells with inadequate mechanical integrity.
The reaction to this report has been expectedly divisive. Erik Milito, director of the American Petroleum Institute (API), which represents energy companies, said in a statement that “[i]t is beyond absurd for the administration to reverse course on its way out the door.” API also maintains that there is plenty of research demonstrating the oil and gas industry’s efforts to protect water resources “at every step of the hydraulic fracturing process.”
Oil and gas companies will need to keep a close eye on how this finalized report affects regulations and laws in states with significant fracking, such as Texas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota, and West Virginia. Of course, the EPA itself is in the midst of a change as President-elect Trump’s incoming administration gears up to take over in January 2017. Given Trump’s recent decisions regarding key positions affecting the energy sector, it will be interesting to see what decisions the EPA will take – or not take – to address its findings in the final report.