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EPA Study: Hydraulic Fracturing Not Harmful to Drinking Water

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A new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency review shows that hydraulic fracturing, when conducted properly, does not have a negative impact on drinking water resources in the United States.

The nearly five-year, congressionally mandated study confirmed what many in the oil and gas industry have been saying for years. The resulting EPA draft assessment, released on June 4, shows that hydraulic fracturing activities in the United States have not led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources. However, the study did show that there are potential vulnerabilities in the water lifecycle that could impact drinking water.

The assessment followed the water used for hydraulic fracturing from water acquisition, chemical mixing at the well pad site, well injection of fracking fluids, the collection of hydraulic fracturing wastewater (including flowback and produced water), and wastewater treatment and disposal.

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“EPA’s draft assessment will give state regulators, tribes and local communities and industry around the country a critical resource to identify how best to protect public health and their drinking water resources,” said Dr. Thomas A. Burke, EPA’s Science Advisor and Deputy Assistant Administrator of EPA’s Office of Research and Development. “It is the most complete compilation of scientific data to date, including over 950 sources of information, published papers, numerous technical reports, information from stakeholders and peer-reviewed EPA scientific reports.”

The American Petroleum Institute (API) responded the EPA announcement to say that results were thanks to the safety and effectiveness of state and federal regulations and current industry practices.

“After more than five years and millions of dollars, the evidence gathered by EPA confirms what the agency has already acknowledged and what the oil and gas industry has known,” said API Upstream Group director Erik Milito. “Hydraulic fracturing is being done safely under the strong environmental stewardship of state regulators and industry best practices.”

In a June 4 statement, the API cited data from the Ground Water Protection Counci that showed state agencies have finalized an estimated 82 groundwater-related rules for oil and gas production from 2009 to 2013, while the EPA was conducting this study.

“Continuous safety improvements have been an ongoing part of hydraulic fracturing for 65 years,” Milito added. “That process will continue, with our support, under the oversight of state regulators who are most familiar with their own area’s unique geology, hydrology, and other physical characteristics.”

Furthermore, Milito said that hydraulic fracturing has been used safely in more than 1 million wells and has resulted in the United States’ rise as a global energy superpower, as well as growth in energy investments, wages and new jobs.

“Surging production of natural gas is a major reason U.S. carbon emissions are near 20-year lows,” Milito said. “Remaining questions cited by EPA have all been addressed by a wide array of strong state regulations, industry standards, and federal laws.”

The API reports that 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.

Regarding the vulnerabilities found in the EPA review, the agency found specific instances where well integrity and waste water management related to hydraulic fracturing activities impacted drinking water resources, but they were small compared to the large number of hydraulically fractured wells across the country. The report provides valuable information about potential vulnerabilities, some of which are not unique to hydraulic fracturing, to drinking water resources, but was not designed to be a list of documented impacts.

According to the draft assessment, these vulnerabilities to drinking water resources include:

  • Water withdrawals in areas with low water availability;
  • Hydraulic fracturing conducted directly into formations containing drinking water resources;
  • Inadequately cased or cemented wells resulting in below ground migration of gases and liquids;
  • Inadequately treated wastewater discharged into drinking water resources; and
  • Spills of hydraulic fluids and hydraulic fracturing wastewater, including flowback and produced water.

The EPA has also released nine peer-reviewed scientific reports that were a part of the agency’s overall hydraulic fracturing drinking water study and contributed to the findings outlined in the draft assessment.

The agency announced that its draft assessment benefited from extensive stakeholder engagement conducted across the country with states, tribes, industry, non-governmental organizations, the scientific community and the public to ensure that the draft assessment reflects current practices in hydraulic fracturing and utilizes all data and information available to the agency.

The EPA study will be finalized after review by the Science Advisory Board and public review and comment. For a copy of the study, visit www.epa.gov/hfstudy.

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