Environmental and Energy Law Blog

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

EPA Issues Report on Fracking's Impact on Groundwater

Does hydraulic fracturing harm drinking water?

As a result of technological innovations such as hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and horizontal drilling, Texas has experienced a boom in the production of natural gas and oil over the last decade. At the same time, these techniques have stirred controversy as opponents contend there has been collateral environmental damage such as groundwater contamination, increased air pollution, and even earthquakes.

 Fracking is a process in which large volumes of water, sand and chemicals are pumped underground to split open rock formations so oil and gas will flow.

Now, the EPA has chimed in with a report that finds oil and gas extraction through fracking can potentially contaminate drinking water. The report, authorized by Congress in 2010, differs from a previously released draft version in which the EPA initially said there was no evidence of "widespread systemic impacts, but rather water had been harmed in some cases.  

Tom Burke, EPA’s science adviser and a deputy assistant administrator, reportedly said that the removal of the phrase about “widespread, systemic” impacts came at the urging of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board.

"Data gaps did not allow us to quantify how widespread the impacts are,” Burke said.

Nonetheless removing the language has had a negligible effect on policies already being considered by the Texas Railroad Commission, the state regulator of oil and gas activity in the state. The commission is seeking to enhance fracking regulations, even though it believes current rules have been strengthened enough, according to TRC chairwoman Christi Craddick.

 “As long as companies and operators follow our rules, we think we won’t see any problems with hydraulic fracturing,” said Craddick.

On the other hand, some environmental groups argue the public was misled by the initial report's assessment of the pollution risks associated with fracking.

 “The revised assessment puts an end to the false narrative of risk-free fracking that has been widely promoted by industry,” said Mark Brownstein of the Environmental Defense Fund.

The Takeaway

The question remains as to how the EPA's latest assessment will impact decision makers and the industry, especially given anticipated changes in energy regulation under the incoming Trump Administration. At the same time, disputes over the environmental effects of fracking are inevitable, and require the expertise of an experienced energy exploration and development law attorney.

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