On December 13, 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) released its final report on the impacts from hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources.1 The report concludes that hydraulic fracturing “can impact drinking water resources under some circumstances.”2 EPA identified six conditions under which impacts from hydraulic fracturing activities can be more frequent or severe, including:
- Water withdrawals for hydraulic fracturing in times or areas of low water availability, particularly in areas with limited or declining groundwater resources;
- Spills during the management of hydraulic fracturing fluids and chemicals or produced water that result in large volumes or high concentrations of chemicals reaching groundwater resources;
- Injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into wells with inadequate mechanical integrity, allowing gases or liquids to move to groundwater resources;
- Injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids directly into groundwater resources;
- Discharge of inadequately treated hydraulic fracturing wastewater to surface water resources; and
- Disposal or storage of hydraulic fracturing wastewater in unlined pits, resulting in contamination of groundwater resources.
EPA noted that significant data gaps and uncertainties in the available data prevented it from calculating or estimating the national frequency of or providing a full characterization of the severity of impacts on drinking water resources from hydraulic fracturing. EPA found that identified impacts generally occurred near hydraulically fractured oil and gas production wells and ranged in severity, from temporary changes in water quality to contamination that made private drinking water wells unusable.
EPA initiated the study of impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water in 2011 at the request of Congress. The report is organized around the five main activities in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle:
- Water acquisition – acquiring water to be used for hydraulic fracturing;
- Chemical mixing – mixing the water with chemical additives to make hydraulic fracturing fluids;
- Well injection – injecting hydraulic fracturing fluids into the production well to create and grow fracturing in the targeted production zone;
- Produced water handling – collecting the wastewater that returns through the well after injection; and
- Wastewater disposal and reuse – managing the wastewater through disposal or reuse methods.
EPA analyzed potential impacts for all five stages of the hydraulic fracturing water cycle, and found that the six conditions listed above are more likely than others to result in more frequent or more severe impacts. EPA suggests that by focusing attention on the six conditions described above, impacts on drinking water resources from activities in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle could be prevented or reduced.
Changes from Draft Report
The language of the final conclusion was modified from that in the draft report, issued in June 2015, which found no evidence of “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources.”3 However, this change in language does not indicate a significant change in the underlying findings of the report. The final report’s six “conditions under which impacts . . . can be more frequent or severe,” listed above, are consistent with the five “potential mechanisms” for impacts identified in the draft report. The first five “conditions” from the final report are almost identical to the five “mechanisms” from the draft report, with the sixth added “condition” regarding disposal of wastewater in unlined pits. The change in language is therefore one of tone rather than a change in the substantive meaning of the conclusion.
Next Steps and Takeaways
EPA states that the scientific information in the report can help inform decisions by federal, state, tribal, and local officials; industry; and communities. The conclusions and findings in the report could lay the foundation for additional regulation of hydraulic fracturing activities and also influence regulation and legislation in other jurisdictions around the world.
EPA is hosting two public webinars on Wednesday, December 14 at 10 am EST and 2 pm EST to provide a brief overview of the final report.4