By Hugh MacMillan
The subtitle of the EPA’s press release announcing the assessment — presented by the Obama Administration as the topline finding — read as follows (emphasis added):
“Assessment shows hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources and identifies important vulnerabilities to drinking water resources.”
Media reports ran with this framing of the assessment, and a barrage of headlines whitewashed fracking as safe. This outcome, which has delighted both the oil and gas industry and the financial elites who are banking on decades of fracking, was the result of multiple levels of EPA and Obama Administration spin.
Although still deeply problematic, the framing of the major findings in the actual text of the nearly 1000-page assessment was very different than the topline of the press release. The actual assessment states (again, emphasis added):
“From our assessment, we conclude there are above and below ground mechanisms by which hydraulic fracturing activities have the potential to impact drinking water resources. … We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States. … This finding could reflect a rarity of effects on drinking water resources, but may also be due to other limiting factors.” (p. ES-23)
That is, for the EPA’s press release, the major finding of the assessment was changed from “we did not find evidence” to the “Assessment shows” there is no evidence.
In reality, what the assessment shows is that, at almost every turn, the efforts of EPA to evaluate the impacts due to the “above and below ground mechanisms” were thwarted. At times, the agency was thwarted by circumstances out of its control, but in many other cases the agency’s own timidity is to blame.
The Spin Within The Assessment
The conclusive use of the phrases “widespread, systemic” and “rarity of effects” in the actual draft assessment is what enabled the Obama Administration to whitewash fracking with a small but enormously consequential change in the phrasing for the press release.
The implication is that, for the EPA and the Obama Administration, only problems that are deemed “widespread, systemic” warrant proactive concern about the current direction of energy policy.
To this point, the lead caveat in the summary of the assessment’s findings is:
“In particular, data limitations preclude a determination of the frequency of impacts with any certainty.” (p. ES-22)
The nearly 1000-page assessment is littered with additional caveats specific to each of the “mechanisms” identified as “having the potential to impact drinking water resources.” For example, the EPA’s assessment of impacts from 457 spills identified as related to hydraulic fracturing contains the following caveat:
“Of the volume of spilled flowback and produced water, 16% was recovered for on-site use or disposal, 76% was reported as unrecovered, and 8% was unknown. The potential impact of the unknown and unrecovered volume on drinking water resources is unknown.” (p. 7-33)
On the question of contamination of underground sources of drinking water due to the migration of shale gas, the assessment states:
“In most cases, the methane in the [water] wells likely originated from intermediate formations between the production zone and the surface; however, in some cases, the methane appears to have originated from deeper layers such as those where the Marcellus Shale is found.” (p. 6-17)
The assessment goes on to conclude:
“Evidence shows that the quality of drinking water resource may have been affected by hydraulic fracturing fluids escaping the wellbore and surrounding formation in certain areas, although conclusive evidence is currently limited.” (p. 6-57)
But with with the conclusions clouded by “data limitations and uncertainties” — including of its own making — the Obama Administration has succeeded in dismissing the impacts to drinking water resources from fracking as not “widespread” and “systemic.”
Limitations of Federal Government’s Own Making
The Obama Administration has not only slanted the narrative around the pollution documented in the study, it has failed to ensure that the EPA gather adequate data.
This failure is not just due to the fact that oil and gas companies — riding a legacy of decades of political influence peddling — enjoy exemptions from key statutes in all the major environmental laws. Rather than compel companies to cooperate, the EPA’s assessment is hamstrung by the vagaries of relying on the voluntary cooperation and disclosures by industry.
For example, because after-the-fact studies of contamination are difficult, the EPA had planned prospective studies, which would include baseline data on water quality and elaborate monitoring over time, from drilling and fracking the well to production. But the agency was not able to come to terms with any companies over site access or plans for monitoring and oversight.
Importantly, to see precisely why and how contaminants are leaking from some fracked wells, the EPA would likely needed to have monitored hundreds of individual wells as closely as technologically possible. Nonetheless, oil and gas companies would not accept the spotlight and close regulatory scrutiny on their fracking operations even once.
This is remarkable given that, according to the EPA’s own Inspector General, a primary reason that the agency withdrew its emergency order against Range Resources, regarding a case of contamination in Parker County, Texas, was that the company had agreed to participate in the assessment. The EPA’s failure to complete that investigation adds to the agency’s failure to carry out investigations, after the fact, of contamination in Pavillion, Wyoming and Dimock, Pennsylvania.
The Obama Administration has chalked up the experiences of those who have been living with contamination as nothing more than collateral damage, and as the result of rare effects. The assessment is nonetheless clear that such collateral damage to water resources, both recognized and unrecognized, will continue to mount as a result of both accidents and routine operations.
Among the uncertainties acknowledged in the assessment is that more contamination may be yet to come:
“Given the surge in the number of modern high-pressure hydraulic fracturing operations dating from the early 2000s, evidence of any fracturing-related fluid migration affecting a drinking water resource (as well as the information necessary to connect specific well operation practices to a drinking water impact) could take years to discover.” (p. 6-56)
This amounts to unacceptable risks to vital drinking water resources.
In dismissing concerns about such impacts on drinking water resources, including those made clear in the assessment, the Obama Administration has upheld its vision for the country: decades more widespread and systematic drilling and fracking, to maximize the extraction of unconventional oil and natural gas.
The oil and gas industry and the financial industry share this vision. Together these bastions of political influence continue to sink billions of dollars in infrastructure to build out demand for unconventional oil and gas.
The bitter irony is that decades more climate pollution, locked in by such sunk costs, will bring impacts on drinking water resources that are certain to be widespread and systemic.
Take action today to tell EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to correct the misleading press release about the study.