The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has reversed its findings on hydraulic fracturing and finally admitted the drilling technique can contaminate groundwater — or at least that’s what many media headlines would have you believe.
The New York Times, for example, went with “Reversing Course, E.P.A. Says Fracking Can Contaminate Drinking Water.” The Wall Street Journal reported “Fracking Can Taint Drinking Water, EPA Report Finds.”
So did the EPA actually “reverse” its findings on fracking? Not really.
In 2015, EPA released a draft study on fracking’s potential impacts on drinking water. The multi-year study found no evidence the process has “led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.”
The finding was huge, and trumpeted by the oil and gas industry as a death blow to environmental critics of fracking. But environmentalists didn’t give up and heavily publicized letters from EPA scientific advisers challenging the draft’s mainline findings.
Fracking involves injecting water, sand and some chemicals deep underground to break open shale to extract oil and natural gas. Environmentalists claim the fracking process can contaminate groundwater and see EPA’s final study as validation of their concerns.
On the other hand, pro-frackers say EPA’s final study only reinforces the dozens upon dozens of peer-reviewed studies on fracking that have found little to no impact on drinking water. EPA even admits the number of contamination cases is rare.
“This study took five years to complete, and in that time EPA found nothing to suggest that fracking is a serious risk to groundwater,” Dr. Katie Brown with the industry-backed group Energy In Depth wrote in a blog post.
EPA’s final study found the fracking process “can impact drinking water resources under some circumstances” that can ”range in frequency and severity, depending on the combination of hydraulic fracturing water cycle activities and local- or regional-scale factors.”
The report continued: “However, significant data gaps and uncertainties in the available data prevented us from calculating or estimating the national frequency of impacts on drinking water resources from activities in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle.”
That’s just a different way of saying there’s no evidence of “widespread, systemic impacts” from fracking on drinking water.
The finding is the same, only the language is different.
Why the change?
After EPA released its draft report, the agency sent it along to scientific advisers who grumbled amongst themselves about the mainline findings. Advisers eventually agreed EPA needed to “provide quantitative analysis that supports its conclusion that hydraulic fracturing has not led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources.”
So that’s what EPA did. Officials changed the language in their report to highlight that fracking can impact drinking water — something they found in their draft report — but “data gaps” prevent any sort of quantitative analysis.
But even that’s a little misleading since Thomas Burke, deputy assistant administrator at EPA, told reporters there’s only been a small number of cases of groundwater contamination.
“While the number of identified cases of drinking water contamination is small, the scientific evidence is insufficient to support estimates of the frequency of contamination,” Burke said, according to WSJ.
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