If fracking was inherently risky to drinking water, EPA report would produce more than list of hypothetical contamination scenarios
By Seth Whitehead, EnergyInDepth
A thorough review of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 666-page final drinking water report further solidifies what EID reported last week: the substance of the report — its actual data — reinforces the 2015 draft report’s topline conclusion that there was no evidence of “widespread, systemic impacts” from fracking.
EPA, of course, opted to delete the latter language from its final report. But comments by EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator Thomas Burke reveal that remains EPA’s final conclusion.
For instance, he recently told CBS This Morning that “the overall incidence of impacts is low.”
Of course, there is absolutely no difference between saying the “the overall incidence of impacts is low” and there are “no widespread, systemic impacts.” But unfortunately that fact was lost on much of the media, leading to several misleading headlines, including:
- The New York Times: “Reversing Course, E.P.A. Says Fracking Can Contaminate Drinking Water.”
- The Wall Street Journal: “Fracking Can Taint Drinking Water, EPA Report Finds.”
- The Hill: “EPA reverses course on fracking safety”
- Christian Science Monitor: “In U-turn, EPA says fracking can pose a threat to drinking water”
- Salon: “Environmental Protection Agency: Fracking causes drinking water contamination”
- San Antonio Current: “EPA Says Yes, Fracking Can Cause Water Contamination”
Not only did the EPA not reverse course, its claim of “data gaps” was essentially an admission that after six long years it couldn’t turn up a shred of evidence proving the oft-repeated activist claim that fracking is an inherent threat to drinking water. To illustrate this, EID decided to revisit its list of 10 important facts to know about the EPA draft report that we published last year. Of course, our review shows that, despite some misleading headlines, literally nothing regarding the actual substance or data of the report have changed. And in fact, EPA’s study officially closes the book on the environmental activists’ deliberate misinformation campaign. Let’s review.
Fact #1: Even with greatly expanded definition of hydraulic fracturing and drinking water, EPA still finds no evidence of widespread or systemic contamination
Both the draft and final versions of the EPA report lump five separate activities related to the fracturing process under one all-encompassing term that EPA refers to as the “hydraulic fracturing water cycle.” As the following graphic from the report illustrates, just one step of this cycle — well injection — directly involves the actual fracking process.
Furthermore, most of the EPA’s well injection chapter focuses on well casing issues, which of course, are not exclusive to fracking. Water acquisition, chemical mixing, produced water handling and wastewater disposal and reuse are all steps of the oil and gas development process regardless of whether a well is hydraulically fractured or not. Forbes contributor Robert Rapier touched on the absurdity of this broad definition in a recent op-ed,
“The EPA report goes out of its way to blur the lines as well by lumping it all into ‘activities in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle.’ By doing this, if a guy driving a truck filled with fracking chemicals has a wreck, it’s a ‘fracking issue.’”
The fact that EPA has indeed expanded the definition of fracking for the purposes of its report (more on the reasons why in a bit) has been widely underreported. Also underreported is the fact that EPA studied groundwater and surface water impacts in its final report, and also expanded the definition of drinking water, as Bloomberg notes,
“For decades, the agency has defined ‘drinking water resources’ as any water with total dissolved solids below 10,000 milligrams per liter, on the assumption that such water could someday be cleaned up enough to be drinkable. U.S. water utilities typically restrict drinking water to less than 500 mg/L total dissolved solids.
“A drinking water resource, by EPA definition, could be too deep, too small or trapped in rock too solid to make recovery practical, in addition to being too saline for water utility standards.”
In other words, for the purposes of this report, EPA considers just about any water source a potential “drinking water” source — even if it contains twice the amount of dissolved solids as water considered potable by U.S. water utilities. From the report’s executive summary,
“Consistent with the Study Plan (U.S. EPA, 2011d), drinking water resources are defined within this assessment as any groundwater or surface water that now serves, or in the future could serve, as a source of drinking water for public or private use. This definition is broader than most regulatory definitions of ‘drinking water’ to include both fresh and non-fresh bodies of water that are and could be used now or could be used in the future as sources of drinking water (Chapter 2).”
It is for this reason that EPA claims it identified injection of fracking fluids into “drinking water” as an example of a “water impact” from fracking, including examples in such western states as Wyoming (Wind River Basin), California (Kern County), Colorado (Raton Basin) and New Mexico (San Juan Basin). Each example is very misleading due to the fact the water tables impacted are not actually used for drinking water and are only considered drinking water aquifers by EPA’s admittedly drastically expanded definition.
Even so, EPA offers no claim of drinking water contamination (because they aren’t actual drinking water aquifers) and notes that fracking is rarely conducted in such formations,
“This analysis, in conjunction with the result from the Well File Review, suggests that the overall frequency of this occurrence is relatively low, but is concentrated in particular areas of the country.”
EPA also broadens the definition of “impacts” for the purposes of this report, explaining that the term “impacts” should not necessarily be equated to contamination (which, of course, it has been).
“We define impacts broadly in this assessment to include any change in the quantity or quality of drinking water resources.”
So to sum up, EPA expands the definition of the term fracking, drinking water and impacts for the purposes of its report. And it still found no evidence of widespread impacts.
This might have been a bigger story had the agency not steered the media toward its desired narrative by claiming “data” gaps prevented it from revealing the smoking gun activists have been hoping for.
Fact #2: Rare instances of groundwater impacts still not due to the fracking process
As E&E News recently noted, EPA also expanded the definition of fracking to include components that it already knew had impacted water,
“There are few, if any, examples of the specific practice of hydraulic fracturing fluid rising through rock to contaminate groundwater. But by broadening its examination to include hydraulic fracturing ‘activities’ and the full ‘water cycle’ of fracking, EPA ventured into areas where water contamination is already a widely acknowledged concern.”
But bottom line, as E&E noted, “there are few, if any examples” of fracking fluid rising through fractures at depth into water tables, and the EPA findings did not change that fact. Several excerpts from the final report illustrate exactly why this is the case.
EPA notes that the possibility of fluids rising through fractures into water tables during the hydraulic fracturing process is remote,
“…due to the very low permeabilities of shale formations; this means that hydraulic fracturing operations are unlikely to generate sufficient pressure to drive fluids into shallow drinking water zones.”
EPA notes the possibility of fluids rising through fractures into water tables is even more unlikely following fracking operations,
“In deep, low-permeability shale and tight gas settings and where induced fractures are contained within the production zone, flow through the production formation has generally been considered an unlikely pathway for migration into drinking water resources (Jackson et al., 2013d).”
“Some natural conditions could also create an upward hydraulic gradient in the absence of any effects from hydraulic fracturing. However, these natural mechanisms have been found to cause very low flow rates over very long distances, yielding extremely small vertical fluxes in sedimentary basins. These translate to some estimated travel times of 100,000 to 100,000,000 years across a 328 ft (100 m) thick layer with about 0.01 nD (1 . 10−23 m2) permeability (Flewelling and Sharma, 2014).”
Fact #3: Incidence of groundwater being impacted by development activities were still “small” The EPA draft concluded that, even taking into account all five steps of the hydraulic fracturing “water cycle” that the number of identified water impacts “was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.”
That language was removed from the final report, but as covered earlier, comments made to the media by a top EPA official reveal that this is still the agency’s final conclusion. In addition to his comments to CBS, Burke admitted to the Wall Street Journal that the documented number of cases of water contamination from fracking-related activities is indeed small. From the Wall Street Journal,
“When asked, Mr. Burke did reiterate the report’s earlier findings that the EPA found only a small number of cases of contamination but stressed the lack of data,
“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 told the Wall Street Journal. “Scientists involved with finalizing the assessment specifically identified this uncertainty in the report.” (emphasis added)
Fact #4: Still directly contradicts oft-cited Ingraffea, Dusseault and Muehlenbachs well casing studies
As stated earlier, the well injection chapter of the report focuses largely on well casing issues that are in no way exclusive to fracking, as all wells can have casing issues whether they’re fracked or not.
And the report directly takes a long look at studies by well-known shale critics Anthony Ingraeffea, Maurice Dusseault and Karlis Muehlenbachs and concludes that these researchers’ contentions that well integrity is a widespread issue is drastically overblown,
“We identified two cases where hydraulic fracturing activities affected the quality of drinking water resources due to well construction issues, including inadequate cement or ruptured casing.”
EPA’s finding of just two instances of well casing issues caused by hydraulic fracturing activities leading to water impacts shows just how rare such instances are, considering the report finds more than 300,000 wells have been fracked in the U.S. since 2000.
Rates of wells actually leaking into the outside environment are a mere fraction of one percent of all wells drilled across the United States. For example, the EPA report references two other studies that found catastrophic failure rates of just 0.06 percent.
Just as a refresher, Ingraffea is known for claiming that half of all shale wells “fail,” a conclusion to which he arrived by using data from what he called “industry documents” contained in another report that EPA also cites as “a study of wells in the Gulf of Mexico (Brufatto et al., 2003).” (6-14)
This claim of high failure rates for well-casings was also made Muehlenbachs, who said, “The biggest problem is that half or more the [shale] wells drilled leak due to improper cement jobs or industry is not following best practices” based on that same Brufatto et al study. Both Ingraffea and Muehlenbachs used Dusseault’s 2000 paper to back up their claims.
Fact #5: Still contradicts Duke water contamination studies
The EPA’s draft report makes reference to several studies that found thermogenic methane in drinking water resources and (sort of) blamed fracking. But EPA made it clear in its draft report that the mere presence of thermogenic methane in water wells does not mean it came from shale formations or is related to development, stating that the “pathways of migration are generally not apparent” in each study.
And EPA’s final report also emphasizes that thermogenic methane can naturally exist in well water,
“The origin of methane in groundwater can be either thermogenic (produced by high temperatures and pressures in deeper formations, such as the gas found in the Marcellus Shale) or biogenic (produced in shallower formations by bacterial activity in anaerobic conditions).
“Gas occurrence is linked to local and regional geologic characteristics. In some cases, thermogenic methane occurs naturally in shallow formations because the formation itself was uplifted (relative to the surface) over geologic time.”
Fact #6: EPA still debunks activists’ water usage claims
The EPA’s draft report completely refuted anti-fracking groups’ oft-repeated claim that shale development is rapidly depleting water resources, finding fracturing technology only accounts for a small percentage of overall water use. From the report:
“Cumulatively, hydraulic fracturing uses and consumes billions of gallons of water each year in the United States, but at the national or state scale, it is a relatively small user (and consumer) of water compared to total water use and consumption.” (4-8; emphasis added)
EPA’s final report echoed the draft report’s findings,
“Hydraulic fracturing generally uses and consumes a relatively small percentage of water when compared to total water use, water consumption, and water availability at the national, state, and county scale.”
EID has previously noted that fracking accounted for just 0.3 percent of total U.S. freshwater consumption in 2011 and that the city of New York consumes as much water every six minutes as is used in the average hydraulic fracturing job. EPA’s final report further confirms that activists’’ claims regarding water use for fracking are greatly exaggerated,
“In most counties studied, the average annual water volumes reported in FracFocus 1.0 were generally less than 1% of total water use. This suggests that hydraulic fracturing operations represented a relatively small user of water in most counties.”
“With notable exceptions, hydraulic fracturing uses a relatively small percentage of water when compared to total water use and availability at large geographic scales.”
Fact #7: Still no documented impacts to groundwater from spillage of fracturing fluids
EPA’s draft report looked at 497 spill reports from the fracking fluid chemical mixing process — which occurs when the fracturing crew prepares the water-based solution for delivery into the formation and found “no documented impacts to groundwater” from those spills.
The final report also found, “Spill reports have not documented impacts on groundwater related to the chemical mixing stage,” as the following chart from the report illustrates,
The final report also found that the median spill rate is just 2.6 per every 100 wells and provided proper context regarding fracking fluid concentrations,
“Once chemicals are mixed with the base fluid to form the hydraulic fracturing fluid, the chemical is diluted to much lower concentrations, which has the potential for a less severe impact.”
The report also estimates that between 2,300 and 6,500 gallons of fracking fluid additives are stored on site in their pure form, although some are not at 100 percent concentrations. Activists often point to the lack of toxicity information regarding these chemicals, but the EPA’s final report notes,
“This lack of toxicity values is not unique to the hydraulic fracturing industry; in fact, it has been estimated that there are tens of thousands of chemicals in commercial use that have not undergone significant toxicological evaluation.”
Fact #8: EPA still says that literally tens of millions of Americans reside in proximity to hydraulically fractured wells – and concludes that they are safe
EPA’s removal of its original determination of “no widespread, systemic” impacts from fracking is all-the-more confounding considering both its draft and final reports illustrate just how widespread hydraulic fracturing is in the U.S.
EPA notes that of the approximately 275,000 wells that were hydraulically fractured in 25 different states between 2000 and 2013, eight percent of those wells were within one mile of a public water system (PWS).
Considering 86 percent of the U.S. population gets its water from a PWS, EPA estimates 8.6 million people get their water from a source a mile or less from a fracked well. Obviously, one would have to surmise that if there were widespread problems, it would be evident considering 8.6 million people in 25 states would be affected! But EPA’s final report claims “significant data gaps preclude it from making any definitive determinations regarding fracking’s safety.”
EPA also notes that another “3.6 million people live in counties with at least one hydraulically fractured well and where at least 30% of the population relies on non-PWSs (well water) for drinking water.”
So all told, more than 10 million people rely on water sources located a mile or less from a fracked well, and the following map taken from the report shows how widespread the practice has been throughout the U.S. over the last decade and a half.
But in six years, EPA found no evidence of systemic impacts linked to its broad definition of fracking. This prompted the Washington Post editorial board to note that, regardless of how the EPA spun their final report to the media, the data in its final report clearly shows that fracking is not an inherent threat to drinking water and that the millions of people who rely on water sources in close proximity to shale development are safe,
“… the agency also noted, the number of fracked wells in the country has been astonishingly high in recent years, and there is only sparse and isolated evidence of real harm…”
Fact #9: Anti-fracking activists claim of “industry influence” still debunked
If anything, the EPA’s decision to remove phrase “no widespread, systemic impacts” from its final report and claim that “data gaps” kept the agency from coming to a decisive verdict (despite 4,100 applicable scientific references, six years and $33 million in taxpayer dollars) shows EPA was did environmentalists’ bidding instead.
There is not only evidence that environmentalists groups pressured EPA to broaden the scope of its study to encompass a very broad definition of fracking — but that EPA did so unilaterally despite clear orders from Congress not to do so.
As a meeting summary from 2010 between EPA and environmental groups explains, anti-fracking groups:
“expressed concern that the study will not include all aspects of the HF and natural gas extraction process. EPA will use a lifecycle framework to organize the study. While a complete mass balance will most likely be beyond the scope of the study, EPA is currently planning to consider all stages of HF activities, including initial water withdrawals and waste storage and disposal.”
A recent Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) report explains, despite a clear indication from Congress that the report be focused on the fracturing process itself, EPA forged ahead with a plan to widen the scope to include all parts of the oil and gas development process.
The Senate EPW Committee report points to an email from an EPA official and member of the hydraulic fracturing study steering committee, which reveals that as of March 11, 2010:
“[The official] was successful (at least for now) in getting the most expansive scope definition. Still limited to drinking water, but would include the drawdowns of fresh water (surface, ground or utility supplied) used to make-up the frac fluids (2 to 7 million gallons a frac event), the fracturing process itself, and waste management issues like produced water handling, spills, waste pits that might impact surface or ground water sources.”
Clearly, EPA was pushed to expand the scope of its study on several fronts, therefore increasing the odds that it would come up with something the anti-fracking movement could trumpet as “proof” of a significant threat to drinking water.
And despite this fact, EPA still couldn’t find any substantive evidence to support this seemingly predetermined outcome. That is because the science is clear: peer-reviewed studies have consistently found little if anything to substantiate the idea that fracking can contaminate groundwater.
Fact #10: This is still the most comprehensive study on hydraulic fracturing to date
Last year, EPA characterized its draft report as the “most complete compilation of scientific data to date.”
Flash forward a little more than the year, and EPA completely changed its tune, saying,
“Data gaps and uncertainties limited EPA’s ability to fully assess the potential impacts on drinking water resources locally and nationally. Because of these data gaps and uncertainties, it was not possible to fully characterize the severity of impacts, nor was it possible to calculate or estimate the national frequency of impacts on drinking water resources from activities in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle.”
EPA’s claim of data gaps and uncertainties is ridiculous. EPA spent six years and at least $33 million in taxpayer dollars on this study. It identified 4,100 scientific data sources and scientific studies applicable to this topic.
That is why the agency’s original characterization of the report as the “most complete compilation of scientific data to date” was spot on. And nothing in the final version of the report has changed that fact.
Fortunately a handful of media outlets, including Bloomberg BNA, Forbes and The Daily Caller, correctly reported what the above list confirms: Not only has EPA not reversed course — the agency is effectively punting after a six-year long drive to prove the anti-fracking movement’s favorite talking point stalled deep in its own territory.
If fracking truly were an inherent risk to drinking water, EPA would have been able to produce much more than the list of hypothetical contamination scenarios and anecdotal accounts of impacts that this report provides. And by playing the “data gaps” card, the agency was able to quietly exit stage left while still generating the headlines activists desired despite no actual proof to support them.
But bottom line, EPA’s final determination that fracking-related activities “can impact drinking water resources under some circumstances” is no different than its original determination of “no widespread, systemic impacts.”