Three hydro-fracking derricks sitting on a plain.
December 14, 2016

EPA: Fracking can contaminate drinking water

Based on the final rdaft of a far-reaching study from 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has decided that fracking - a hydraulic fracturing technique for extracting gas and oil - can pollute drinking water.

This is in contrast to the original version which found no evidence of fracking being harmful to the water system. It is significant that the conclusion of the study omitted this point from the final version.

“EPA scientists chose not to include that sentence. The scientists concluded it could not be quantitatively supported,” said Thomas A. Burke, science adviser at the EPA.

The findings could be a blow for environmentalists as president-elect Donald Trump has announced that he is focused on increasing the use of fracking, while repealing laws which restrict regulation on it. In addition, his choice to run the EPA, Scott Pruitt, has been a vocal opponent of the EPA’s energy exploration during his time as Attorney General of Oklahoma.

Along with Scott Pruitt, Trump’s energy team will now face a battle to work around scientific conclusions that advise against expansion in this field while the president-elect is so keen to deregulate.

Burke added that water is contaminated in all stages of the process: acquiring the water for fracking, combining the water with chemicals to make the necessary fluids, inserting these fluids underground, collecting the resulting waste water and also storing this waste water. Groups like th Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition have long claimed this is the case, showing supposed contamination in videos like this:

The science adviser urged some caution, however, stating that the report was “full of gaps and holes,” with further study required. He also stopped short of producing any policy recommendations, adding it will “give a lot of information to help communities and decision makers do better in protecting water supplies.”

It seems apparent the team Donald Trump has assembled will have a fairly fixed viewpoint. He stated in September to a conference full of fracking executives that; “The shale energy revolution will unleash massive wealth for America,” as he vowed to end regulations on fracking.

“I think probably no other business has been (more) affected by regulation than your business,” he pointed out. “Federal regulations remain a major restriction to shale production.”

"highly anecdotal and often overblown"

Existing federal regulations on fracking are already relatively lax. The current rule is designed to prevent water being contaminated by fracking waste, however this rule only applies to public land – constituting roughly 10 percent of all fracking in the US. The rest happens on state or private land, meaning that only state and local regulations apply.

The report gives further weight to environmentalists who are already seeking to add further federal restrictions to the use of fracking.

“This report acknowledges what far too many communities across this country know to be true - fracking is a threat to our clean drinking water,” said the League of Conservation Voters’ legislative representative, Madeleine Foote.

“Given EPA administrator nominee Scott Pruitt’s record of fighting fracking regulations, it will be important during the confirmation process for senators to ask him if he will follow the recommendations of his agency’s scientists, or continue to rely on industry spin,” she added.

Shale oil drilling

Shale oil and fracking have been under investigation in recent years.

The report has attracted scorn from fracking advocates.

“Even the new statement is still consistent with the finding that contamination attributable to shale development is neither widespread nor systemic,” wrote Scott H. Segal, a fossil fuel lobbyist at Bracewell Law LLP. “But evidence of contamination is highly anecdotal and often overblown by the exaggeration often associated with litigation. The vast majority of third-party professional organizations and governmental officials have found shale development to be highly consistent with environmental protection and energy policy objectives.”

The report, the largest and most comprehensive of its kind, was commenced by the EPA in 2010 at the behest of Congress. It contains reviews of over 1000 studies already published, in addition to new research, analysis and modeling carried out by EPA experts. The study also produced 13 peer-reviewed reports, with the same number released in scientific journals.

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