Basics of EPA Fracking Risk Report Changed Little, Critics Say

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By Alan Kovski

Dec. 13 — An Environmental Protection Agency report on hydraulic fracturing does not change the assessment of fracking risks to drinking water in any basic way, an oil and gas association executive said Dec. 13.

In a draft version of the report, the EPA said it found no “widespread, systemic” risks. In its final report, the agency said fracking “can impact drinking water resources under some circumstances.”

Neither summary statement, in either draft or final version, says pollution of drinking water is likely or widespread because of fracking, said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, an industry group.

The final report—a product of five years of work—lists circumstances under which there is a greater risk of pollution, such as when fracking fluids are injected into a well with inadequate mechanical integrity.

The risks that the EPA listed have been understood all along, Sgamma told Bloomberg BNA, “and that’s exactly why states have strict regulations to reduce that risk.”

‘Useful Information Is the Point’

Thomas Burke, deputy assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Research and Development, told reporters the study provides information that regulators and industry can use. “Providing useful information is the point of the study,” Burke said.

The study doesn’t call for additional regulations. States have repeatedly said they are able to handle the regulations themselves, and some of them have sued the Bureau of Land Management over its attempt to apply new regulations to fracking-related activities on federal and Indian lands.

Environmental advocates have expressed hopes that the study would lead to better regulations. Food & Water Watch in Washington, D.C., one of the most adamant in its opposition to fracking, has called for a nationwide ban on the process.

The EPA Science Advisory Board, critiquing an earlier version of the report, said the statement about finding no “widespread, systemic risks” needed quantitative support. Burke told reporters Dec. 13 that the agency’s scientists concluded there wasn’t enough data to provide the requested quantitative support.

“There is little data on water quality prior, during or after hydraulic fracturing activities,” Burke said during a news teleconference.

Risk Factors Listed

The science advisers also criticized the draft final report for not adequately distinguishing between likely and unlikely risks. The final report listed circumstances under which drinking water resources are more likely to be vulnerable to pollution from fracking:

  •  water withdrawals for fracking in times or in areas of low water availability;
  •  large-volume spills during management of fracking fluids or wastewater;
  •  injection of fracking fluids into wells with inadequate mechanical integrity;
  •  injection of fracking fluids directly into groundwater resources;
  •  discharge of inadequately treated wastewater to surface water resources; and
  •  storage of wastewater in unlined pits, resulting in contamination of groundwater resources.
Industry is unlikely to disagree with those points. As an example, Sgamma noted, “We’ve been saying that the key to safe fracking is well-bore integrity.”

Water ‘Resources’ Affected

Part of the difficulty in summarizing the risks could stem from the EPA’s definition of “drinking water resources,” which is not the same as “drinking water aquifer” or “drinking water.”

For decades, the agency has defined “drinking water resources” as any water with total dissolved solids below 10,000 milligrams per liter, on the assumption that such water could someday be cleaned up enough to be drinkable. U.S. water utilities typically restrict drinking water to less than 500 mg/L total dissolved solids.

A drinking water resource, by EPA definition, could be too deep, too small or trapped in rock too solid to make recovery practical, in addition to being too saline for water utility standards.

Commenting on the difference between water resources and drinking water, Sgamma said there has never been a drinking water aquifer that has been contaminated by the fracking process.

The final report also includes information on pollution problems encountered in or near Dimock, Pa.; Pavillion, Wyo.; and Parker County, Texas. The report does not offer firm conclusions about the sources of pollution for any of the three locations, however.

Inhofe Sees Little Basic Change

The report elicited a reaction from Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, that was similar to Sgamma’s. He said the agency tinkered with its summary but didn’t change the fundamentals of the report.

“EPA’s study on hydraulic fracturing only reinforces what science continues to support—that fracking does not cause harm to our drinking water resources,” Inhofe said in a statement.

“While EPA sought to tinker with the topline finding of its draft report, the scant changes made to this final report were not based on any new data,” Inhofe said.

Erik Milito, upstream director of the American Petroleum Institute, an industry group, issued a statement critical of the EPA’s changes to the report and concluded, “We look forward to working with the new administration in order to instill fact-based science back into the public policy process.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Kovski in Washington at akovski@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

For More Information

The EPA final report on hydraulic fracturing risks to drinking water is available at http://src.bna.com/kIy.

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