Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as it is more commonly known, is a subject that’s caused some degree of political polarization. At the center of this controversy is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But based on a June 5 paper published by the EPA, there may be more questions than answers regarding water contamination and fracking.
Both environmentalists as well as leaders from the oil and gas industries state that the report supports their claims. This leaves a lot of scientists scratching their heads, especially since experts have been waiting on the results of this study for some time.
Before we begin analyzing this much-publicized EPA study, it’s first important to fully understand the details of what fracking is and why it usually results in a debate between the two aforementioned parties.
In short, fracking collects natural gas and oil from shell rock by drilling into the earth (usually horizontally) and then releasing a water mixture (usually consisting of water, chemicals and sand) at an extremely high pressure. Industry experts call it fracking because rocks are literally fractured in order to release the oil or gas. In the early years of fracking technology, the practice was typically only done vertically. However, over the past 10 years, many oil and gas companies have not only created fracking sites at a greater pace, but also utilized horizontal fracking, which causes much more significant fractures in the rock to occur.
Where does fracking occur?
The EPA estimates that 25,000 to 30,000 new wells have been drilled for the purposes of fracking between 2011 and 2014, and the practice of fracking takes place in 25 U.S. states. Some of the leading states include Texas (almost half of the wells are located here), Colorado, Pennsylvania and North Dakota.
Although fracking has been around since the 1940s, the U.S. has been a leader in hydraulic fracking since the early 2000s in hopes that the technology could remove the country’s dependence on foreign oil and create an alternative energy source. However, there are several reasons fracking remains a controversial subject to many, especially environmentalists.
- Firstly, the vast quantities of water required to conduct hydraulic fracking must be transported to the site, which dwindles an already precious natural resource.
- Secondly, some experts claim that carcinogens can find their way into groundwater as a result of the fractured rock.
- Thirdly, many environmentalists believe that because fossil fuels are still utilized as a result of fracking, it is not the clean energy source that industry officials claim it is.
Residents who live near fracking sites have also reported problems with their drinking water for several years, and since many areas of the U.S. are currently in severe drought conditions, the large amounts of wastewater are another great concern.
Details about the EPA study
This recent report is one of the largest research efforts to date about fracking, as it is nearly 1,000 pages long. What’s more, the study focuses mainly on the effects of fracking related to drinking water, which primarily impacts human health. According to InsideClimate News, the EPA has been gathering research for this report since 2010. However, it seems that there is still not a consensus as to whether fracking contributes to water pollution, which has created a source of frustration for some scientists.
“We won’t know anything more in terms of real data than we did five years ago,” said Dr. Geoffrey Thyne, a geochemist and member of the EPA’s 2011 Science Advisory Board, a group of independent scientists who reviewed the draft plan of the study, according to InsideClimate News. “This was supposed to be the gold standard. But they went through a long bureaucratic process of trying to develop a study that is not going to produce a meaningful result.”
The Environmental Defense Fund agreed that this was a large study, but added that the research was simply not comprehensive enough. For instance, the entire report is an analysis of previous studies about fracking. Because no bioassessments or actual field work by environmental consultants or water quality laboratories were conducted, there is a significant “knowledge gap” within the EPA, according to the EDF.
Both sides cite the EPA study
One portion of the study making headlines states that “we did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.” Many oil and gas advocates, including the Independent Petroleum Association of America, believe this is proof from the U.S. government that fracking is a clean source of energy that poses no threats to human health.
However, the study also states “we found specific instances where one or more mechanisms led to impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells.” Given the lack of field work and comprehensive research within the report, environmentalists also believe that this is proof that fracking contributes to water contamination.
Although the EPA study might offer more questions than answers about the effects of fracking on drinking water quality and human health in the U.S., there is a clear need for more research into the biological and ecological effects of non-point source pollution stemming from increased activity on the landscape. For example, surface water impacts from water withdrawals, spill events, erosion and sedimentation from roads and well pads. This, in turn, can have significant impacts to the aquatic ecology of streams, rivers, lakes, ponds and wetlands. Conducting bioassessment in areas of fracking activity can help both the industrial operators and environmental regulators manage our surface water resources wisely. For more information about EcoAnalysts’ project experience in areas impacted by fracking activities, please contact us via our website.