EPA’s frack­ing re­port of­fers no ver­dict on drink­ing wa­ter

Could not defini­tively de­clare ‘sys­temic’ threat

The Washington Times Daily - - POLITICS - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

Af­ter years of re­search, the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency said Tues­day it could not defini­tively say whether frack­ing poses a “sys­temic” threat to drink­ing wa­ter sup­plies, of­fer­ing no clear an­swer to per­haps the most im­por­tant ques­tion around the drilling tech­nique.

The agency’s fi­nal re­port on frack­ing, which comes as the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion pre­pares to hand over power to pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump, blamed “data gaps” for its lack of a firm con­clu­sion. Frack­ing has fu­eled the U.S. oil-and-nat­u­ral gas boom and will find a friend in the in­com­ing Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, which ap­pears poised to ramp up do­mes­tic en­ergy devel­op­ment.

While the ex­haus­tive EPA study iden­ti­fied sev­eral sce­nar­ios in which frack­ing could im­pact drink­ing wa­ter, it did not say whether the process is in­her­ently dan­ger­ous, as en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivists and many Democrats on Capi­tol Hill long have claimed.

The re­ac­tion from oil-and-gas in­dus­try groups was mixed, with some or­ga­ni­za­tions prais­ing the re­port as proof that frack­ing was safe, and others claim­ing the EPA was in­ten­tion­ally cast­ing a cloud over the prac­tice with­out firm ev­i­dence.

At the heart of the mat­ter is one sen­tence from the EPA’s draft ver­sion of the study, re­leased last year, that was deleted from the fi­nal ver­sion.

The draft re­port said that the EPA did not have ev­i­dence of “sys­temic im­pacts” on wa­ter, lead­ing oil-and-gas pro­po­nents to claim vic­tory. But agency of­fi­cials said they can no longer make that claim.

“EPA sci­en­tists chose not to in­clude this sen­tence in the fi­nal as­sess­ment re­leased to­day,” Thomas A. Burke, EPA’s deputy as­sis­tant ad­min­is­tra­tor and science ad­viser, told re­porters on a con­fer­ence call Tues­day morn­ing. “EPA sci­en­tists con­cluded the sen­tence could not be quan­ti­ta­tively sup­ported.”

The EPA did iden­tify con­di­tions un­der which frack­ing — the process of in­ject­ing huge vol­umes of wa­ter and chem­i­cals into the ground to break apart rock and re­lease trapped oil or nat­u­ral gas — can im­pact wa­ter sup­plies. The agency said ar­eas with low wa­ter avail­abil­ity can be at risk; that spills at frack­ing sites can af­fect drink­ing wa­ter; that the dis­charge of in­ad­e­quately treated frack­ing waste­water can af­fect drink­ing wa­ter sup­plies; and other con­clu­sions.

But the agency also stressed that its study “was not de­signed to be a list of doc­u­mented im­pacts,” and Mr. Burke said that, de­spite the years of re­search the EPA has con­ducted, there still isn’t enough in­for­ma­tion.

“Com­pre­hen­sive in­for­ma­tion on the lo­ca­tion of ac­tiv­i­ties in the hy­draulic frac­tur­ing cy­cle is lack­ing,” he said. “There is lit­tle data avail­able on wa­ter qual­ity or the pres­ence of frack­ing-re­lated chem­i­cals be­fore, dur­ing, or prior to hy­draulic frac­tur­ing ac­tiv­i­ties.”

Some en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists said the fi­nal EPA re­port ac­cu­rately said that frack­ing can be dan­ger­ous if the proper safe­guards aren’t fol­lowed. They used the re­port to push for more reg­u­la­tions on the prac­tice at the state and lo­cal lev­els.

“The in­dus­try and EPA know as well as any­one else that spills, leaks, and faulty well con­struc­tion can pol­lute air, wa­ter, and land. To pre­tend that there is no risk, and there­fore no need for safe­guards to pro­tect com­mu­ni­ties and con­tin­u­ously im­prove state reg­u­la­tions to keep pace with evolv­ing field prac­tices, runs con­trary to the huge body of ev­i­dence EPA re­viewed,” said Mark Brown­stein, vice pres­i­dent of cli­mate and en­ergy at the En­vi­ron­men­tal De­fense Fund.

With­out a firm, easy-to-un­der­stand con­clu­sion, re­ac­tion from the oil-and-gas in­dus­try has var­ied, with some claim­ing vin­di­ca­tion and others claim­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is raising un­fair ques­tions about frack­ing dur­ing its fi­nal days.

The Amer­i­can Petroleum In­sti­tute blasted the fact that the EPA re­moved its claim that frack­ing poses no sys­temic threat to wa­ter.

“It is beyond ab­surd for the ad­min­is­tra­tion to re­verse course on its way out the door,” API Up­stream Di­rec­tor Erik Mil­ito said in a state­ment. “The agency has walked away from nearly a thou­sand sources of in­for­ma­tion from pub­lished papers, tech­ni­cal re­ports and peer re­viewed sci­en­tific re­ports demon­strat­ing that in­dus­try prac­tices, in­dus­try trends, and reg­u­la­tory pro­grams pro­tect wa­ter re­sources at ev­ery step of the hy­draulic frac­tur­ing process. De­ci­sions like this am­plify the pub­lic’s frus­tra­tions with Wash­ing­ton.”

But other oil-and-gas groups cel­e­brated the find­ings and ze­roed in on the EPA’s in­abil­ity to say that frack­ing ac­tu­ally threat­ens drink­ing wa­ter.

“Af­ter five years of study, EPA found noth­ing to sub­stan­ti­ate the claim that frack­ing causes wide­spread wa­ter con­tam­i­na­tion. With the re­lease of this re­port, we can fi­nally put to rest the idea that frack­ing poses a se­ri­ous risk to ground­wa­ter,” Steve Ever­ley, spokesman for the pro-nat­u­ral gas group North Tex­ans for Nat­u­ral Gas, said in a state­ment.

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