Frack­ing risk down­played

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Wil­liam Yard­ley wil­liam.yard­ley@la­times.com

The EPA concludes that the oil and gas pro­duc­tion process has not caused “sys­temic dam­age” to drink­ing wa­ter.

Hy­draulic frac­tur­ing, which has trans­formed the U.S. into an in­ter­na­tional leader in oil and gas pro­duc­tion but stirred deep con­cerns about its risks to the en­vi­ron­ment, has not caused “sys­temic” dam­age to drink­ing wa­ter but does pose risks, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment con­cluded Thurs­day af­ter a de­tailed, fouryear re­view of the con­tro­ver­sial drilling method.

The En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, in a draft re­port num­ber­ing more than 900 pages, said that while frack­ing op­er­a­tions “have not led to wide­spread, sys­temic im­pacts on drink­ing wa­ter re­sources, there are po­ten­tial vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties in the wa­ter life­cy­cle that could im­pact drink­ing wa­ter.”

The study did find ev­i­dence of prob­lems as­so­ci­ated with the pro­ce­dure, which in­volves in­ject­ing liq­uids at high pres­sure into un­der­ground for­ma­tions to ex­tract oil and gas. It cited spe­cific in­stances in which well in­tegrity and waste­water man­age­ment re­lated to frack­ing ac­tiv­i­ties had af­fected drink­ing wa­ter re­sources, but it said th­ese in­stances “were small com­pared to the large num­ber of hy­drauli­cally frac­tured wells across the coun­try.”

How com­pre­hen­sive the re­port is re­mains in ques­tion. Thomas Burke, the EPA’s science ad­vi­sor, called it “the most com­plete com­pi­la­tion of sci­en­tific data to date,” in­clud­ing more than 950 pub­lished pa­pers, tech­ni­cal and sci­en­tific re­ports as well as in­put from par­ties with stakes in the is­sue. But the re­port it­self em­pha­sized the agency’s well-doc­u­mented prob­lems in gath­er­ing in­for­ma­tion, in­clud­ing the in­dus­try’s re­fusal to co­op­er­ate with some testing.

Lim­i­ta­tions on data avail­able to the agency, the re­port said, pre­vented a de­ter­mi­na­tion “with any cer­tainty” of how fre­quently wa­ter sup­plies had been af­fected by frack­ing ac­tiv­i­ties.

The agency said the rel­a­tively small num­ber of cases of neg­a­tive ef­fects it had iden­ti­fied “could ref lect a rar­ity of ef­fects on drink­ing wa­ter re­sources, but may also be due to other lim­it­ing fac­tors.”

Those fac­tors, it said, could in­clude in­suf­fi­cient data on the qual­ity of drink­ing wa­ter re­sources both be­fore and af­ter frack­ing; the paucity of long-term stud­ies; the pres­ence of other sources of con­tam­i­na­tion, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to es­tab­lish a de­fin­i­tive link to frack­ing; and “the in ac­ces­si­b­lity of some in­for­ma­tion on hy­draulic frac­tur­ing.”

When the study was ini­tially out­lined in 2010, it was ex­pected to in­clude ini­tial base­line testing of sites where wells were to be drilled, then fol­low up with testing dur­ing and af­ter frack­ing op­er­a­tions were con­ducted, ac­cord­ing to Ge­of­frey Thyne, a Wy­oming ge­ol­o­gist who served on the ini­tial sci­en­tific ad­vi­sory board for the study in 2010 and 2011. Those plans were halted af­ter in­dus­try de­clined to co­op­er­ate.

“I’m very dis­ap­pointed to see that we did not have any prospec­tive stud­ies as part of this ef­fort, and I think it un­der­mines the strengths of the con­clu­sions,” Thyne said in an in­ter­view Thurs­day.

The EPA said it lacked com­plete in­for­ma­tion on “the num­ber and lo­ca­tion of hy­drauli­cally frac­tured wells, the lo­ca­tion of drink­ing wa­ter re­sources, and in­for­ma­tion on changes in in­dus­try prac­tices.” It noted that it re­lied on an in­dus­try­funded vol­un­tary re­port­ing source, FracFo­cus, to study chem­i­cals used in frack­ing, and the in­for­ma­tion was limited.

“Well op­er­a­tors claimed at least one chem­i­cal as con­fi­den­tial at more than 70% of wells re­ported to FracFo­cus and an­a­lyzed by the EPA,” the re­port said. “The iden­tity of th­ese chem­i­cals, and other chem­i­cals in pro­duced wa­ter, are needed to un­der­stand their prop­er­ties and would also help in­form what chem­i­cals to test for to es­tab­lish base­line con­di­tions and to test for in the event of a sus­pected drink­ing wa­ter im­pact.”

Con­cerns about wa­ter con­tam­i­na­tion from frack­ing have been par­tic­u­larly high in Cal­i­for­nia, where the state agency that reg­u­lates the oil in­dus­try has been in dis­ar­ray.

Last sum­mer, agency of­fi­cials ad­mit­ted that for years they had in­ad­ver­tently al­lowed com­pa­nies to in­ject waste­water from frack­ing and other oil pro­duc­tion op­er­a­tions into hun­dreds of dis­posal wells in pro­tected aquifers, a vi­o­la­tion of fed­eral law. As of March, the agency had shut down 23 in­jec­tion wells that are in aqui- fers not ap­proved for waste dis­posal. New state re­port­ing re­quire­ments have prompted dis­clo­sures by some drillers that wa­ter in­volved in frack­ing has con­tained lev­els of ben­zene that in some cases were thou­sands of times above fed­eral and state stan­dards for safe drink­ing wa­ter.

The EPA re­port noted many ways wa­ter can be af­fected by frack­ing, whether by spills, cracks in equip­ment in­tended to seal wells, dis­posal of waste­water, con­tam­i­na­tion from chem­i­cals or low­er­ing ground­wa­ter lev­els. It cited a Texas study that found “ex­ces­sive draw­down” of lo­cal ground­wa­ter in a small pro­por­tion — about 6% — of the Ea­gle Ford Shale for­ma­tion un­der­ly­ing much of south Texas was re­lated to wa­ter used for frack­ing.

The re­port also cited limited data it gath­ered from FracFo­cus on 453 chem­i­cals used in frack­ing that it said could “persist in the en­vi­ron­ment as long-term con­tam­i­nants.” It noted that “a large pro­por­tion of most hy­draulic frac­tur­ing chem­i­cals tend to re­main in wa­ter.”

The oil and gas in­dus­try em­braced the re­port.

“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,” Erik Mil­ito, direc­tor of the Amer­i­can Petroleum In­sti­tute’s Up­stream Group, said in a state­ment on the in­sti­tute’s web­site. “Hy­draulic frac­tur­ing is be­ing done safely un­der the strong en­vi­ron­men­tal stew­ard­ship of state reg­u­la­tors and in­dus­try best prac­tices.”

Amy Mall, a se­nior pol­icy an­a­lyst for the Nat­u­ral Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil, dis­puted that as­sess­ment. “This study doesn’t show that it’s be­ing done safely,” she said. “It concludes that frack­ing has led to con­tam­i­na­tion of drink­ing wa­ter sources, which to me is not safe.”

Mark Brown­stein, vice pres­i­dent for the cli­mate and en­ergy pro­gram at the En­vi­ron­men­tal De­fense Fund, said frack­ing’s big­gest risks may be long-term ones.

“The process of frack­ing it­self is one risk fac­tor,” he said. “But ... on­go­ing phys­i­cal in­tegrity of the wells and han­dling the mil­lions of gal­lons of waste­water com­ing back to the sur­face af­ter frack­ing ... are even big­ger chal­lenges.”

In less than a decade, frack­ing has eased con­cerns about the na­tion’s long-term en­ergy sup­ply even as it has raised new con­cerns about frack­ing’s po­ten­tial to cause earth­quakes, threaten un­der­ground wa­ter re­sources and con­trib­ute to cli­mate change.

Brian van der Brug Los An­ge­les Times

HY­DRAULIC FRAC­TUR­ING poses risks to drink­ing wa­ter, but the harm is limited, an EPA re­port says. How com­pre­hen­sive the study is re­mains in ques­tion.

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