Comments on EPA’s Recently Released Report on Fracking

On June 4th the U.S. Emvironmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its draft ‘Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing For Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources’. It can be accessed at It was several years in the making, and was undertaken at the request of the U.S. Congress.


On June 8th I was contacted by Roy Hales, Editor of ‘The EcoReport’ with whom I have worked previously. He asked if I would be willing to be interviewed on my reactions to the draft report, given that I and two Swedish co-authors had published a major review of fracking the previous August (see my blog post entitled ‘Shale Gas and Hydraulic Fracturing-Framing the Water Issue’). I agreed, I read the EPA slide presentation on the assessment as well as the 28-page Executive Summary, and the phone interview took place that evening. My thoughts, and those of one other interviewee, are summarized in the following piece published by Roy in his ejournal ( late last night.

Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas and Its Potential Impact on Drinking Water Resources

By Roy L Hales

After five years of research, the EPA’s painfully inadequate fracking assessment has been released. “It’s a bit underwhelming,” said Amanda Frank, from the Center for Effective Government. Dr Allan Hoffman, a retired senior analyst with the Department of Energy, referred to the draft report as “disappointing.” They were referring to the extent that industry was allowed to thwart the EPA investigation.

Figure ES -1 . Schematic cross – section of general types of oil and gas resources and the orientations of production wells used in hydraulic fracturing. Shown are conceptual illustrations of types of oil and gas wells. A vertical well is producing from a conventional oil and gas deposit (right). In this case, a gray confining layer serves to “trap” oil (green) or gas (red). Also shown are wells producing from unconv entional formations: a vertical coalbed methane well (second from right); a horizontal well producing from a shale formation (center); and a well producing from a tight sand formation (left). Note: Figure not to scale. Modified from USGS (2002) and Newell (2011) .

“My general reaction is ‘why bother?’ I have a lot of compassion for EPA, they must have really struggled with this one, but I don’t feel like they produced a very useful report. There is nothing new. It is accurate as far as I could tell. They did review some records, but then they put in all these caveats about how limited the data really was. It is very clear they probably didn’t get co-operation from the industry. That’s a very bad sign in my opinion,” said Dr Hoffman.

The EPA tried to get companies to monitor their wells. They need to test the water before they started drilling, test during the drilling and test afterwards.

“Most companies flat-out refused to comply. So this report is more of a literature review. It is very thorough, in terms of looking at the available data, but limited because they still can’t say how widespread these impacts are when there so few companies that are willing to let the EPA study them,” said Amanda Frank.

She added, “They admit in the conclusion that, based on the number of wells that we know of and based on the number of incidents that we know of, water contamination is not a widespread issue. But the next sentence basically says there is so much data missing that it is hard to make that claim.”

Hoffman recently co-authored a report on the impact hydraulic fracturing has on water. He shares the impression that the number of incidents is small, but added, “We really don’t know.”

“If industry is not going to co-operate on this, then they are not to be trusted. They have plenty of incentive to hide accidents, spills and all that kind of stuff. That’s what people do, they protect their self interest.”

He believes the number of incidents can be brought under control, but suspects that it may take a major accident for the United States to adopt strong enough regulations and enforcement.

A water impoundment at a drill pad in the Fayetteville Shale gas play of Arkansas. The water will be used in the hydraulic fracturing process, where it will be combined with chemicals and sand, then used to create artificial fractures in gas-bearing rocks to allow the gas to be recovered. Photo Credit: Bill Cunningham, USGS

In the meantime, there are reports of water contamination but it is difficult to prove the cause was fracking without proper testing.
If company’s are allowed to withhold the identity of the chemicals they use, you don’t even know what to test for.

There have been large water withdrawals in areas with low water availability. Though the EPA reported the national average was only 1%, in some counties the number was actually 50%.

(Trent Orr, an attorney with Earthjustice, recently informed the ECOreport that much of California’s fracking takes place in Kern county, one of the area’s most affected by the drought.)

In some states, the industry appears to have virtually taken over. In response to communities that have passed fracking bans, both Texas and Oklahoma have passed legislation overruling local control.

“Is fracking going to be safe? Nothing is. There are risks with everything. Getting into my car and driving to work is not ‘safe.’ Industry needs to recognize this and stop trying to say how safe and wonderful it is. They need to acknowledge there are risks. Then we need to ask ourselves, are these risks worth it?” said Frank.

Many hoped the EPA report would help clarify matters.

“The big disappointment is not so much in terms of the report’s scope, as that the conclusions are not widespread. To really fix the problems with fracking, you need to require baseline testing. If we were to require that in every well across the country, we would have a much better sense of how widespread this problem is,” said Frank.”

On June 9th the Washington Post editorialized on the EPA report and basically agreed with the thoughts documented above in Roy Hale’s article. I reprint the editorial below for your information.

“By Editorial Board June 8 at 7:25 PM
IN THE ongoing war over fracking, the loudest voices try their best to obscure this essential point: The controversial drilling technique doesn’t need to be banned; it needs to be well regulated. That’s how we explain the seemingly contradictory reaction to the Environmental Protection Agency’s assessment of fracking’s effects on drinking water, a draft report released last week that industry and environmental groups each spun to support its side. In fact, it supports neither side.

The EPA doesn’t pretend to have a final and precise answer on the scope of fracking’s impact on drinking water. There were sharp limits on its data. But the agency used 950 sources of information from government, industry and environmental groups, so their findings represent the best that science can offer right now. The conclusion: The EPA couldn’t find evidence that fracking has “led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.”

The assessment continued, “The number of identified cases where drinking water resources were impacted are small relative to the number of hydraulically fracked wells.” Given the economic and environmental benefits of using domestically fracked natural gas — which produces less carbon dioxide than coal when burned — the arguments for fracking bans continue to look very weak.

But, the report goes on, there are several possible mechanisms of contamination that drillers and regulators need to treat with a healthy caution: “We found specific instances where one or more of these mechanisms led to impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells.” Moreover, given the limitations of the available data, there might well have been instances of contamination that have been so far invisible to regulators.

Though the available evidence doesn’t justify banning the technique — as Maryland and New York have done — it clearly calls for sensibly regulating it. Properly cementing new wells is a must. Ensuring that blowout preventers, critical valves and other safety hardware are in good shape is, as well. Lining pits containing contaminated water can prevent seepage into groundwater. Taking care not to drill too close to another well, particularly old and rickety ones, can reduce the possibility of opening cracks in the subsurface geology that promote the movement of tainted water and chemicals.

Government officials need to pay attention to seemingly mundane considerations, too: Spillage from ancillary operations such as trucking wastewater to containment areas can affect drinking water if accidents happen in the wrong places. Promoting the reuse of fracking water would be a way for drought-prone states with significant fracking activity to conserve water for other uses.”