Today, the Environmental Protection Agency released a draft assessment of its long-awaited study on the impact of hydraulic fracturing — also known as fracking — on drinking water resources in the United States. The report found that although fracking has, to date, been carried out in a way that has not led to widespread and systematic impacts on the country’s drinking water, the process creates several key vulnerabilities that could potentially undermine the health of drinking water in the United States.
“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,” the report’s executive summary reads. “We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.”
In a statement to the press, EPA science advisor and deputy assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Research and Development Thomas Burke called the study “the most complete compilation of scientific data to date,” noting that over 950 sources of information from published papers, technical reports, and data from various interest groups were included in the assessment.
Industry groups were quick to tout the report as proof of fracking’s safety, while environmental groups claimed that the report was hampered by a lack of available information and watered-down by oil and gas interests.
The study wasn’t a comprehensive survey of all wells, and relied heavily on data already collected by state and federal agencies or willingly submitted by gas and oil companies. Reliance on self-reporting from fracking companies has also plagued researchers trying to understand the risk of methane emissions, raising concern that the companies that willingly submit their data tend to be the ones already taking the most steps to limit their potential for pollution. Environmental groups say the EPA’s comprehensive study has similar problems with its data, and fear that it might have colored the assessment’s ultimate conclusions.
“The EPA found disturbing evidence of fracking polluting our water despite not looking very hard. This study was hobbled by the oil industry’s refusal to provide key data,” Kassie Siegel, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in an emailed statement to ThinkProgress.
Burke acknowledged gaps in data, but did not blame them on industry, which he described as “a major source of information” and “generally very cooperative.” Instead, he found gaps in the data to be a product of a general lack of understanding and resources — but noted that he didn’t feel as though gaps in data contributed to a faulty report.
“This study was about understanding the entire water cycle of the fracking,” Burke said. “We feel confident about finding vulnerabilities in the entire cycle.”
The assessment, Burke cautioned, was not meant to be a categorical compilation of every incidence of water contamination from fracking. Though the report includes several specific examples of water contamination, it also notes that these instances don’t appear to be pervasive within the practice. The report looked at both fracking and fracking-related activities, noting that water resources are especially vulnerable to contamination from the potential leaking of wells and above-ground waste water spills.
“The focus of our study was on wells that were fracked, but there is a narrow window in time where that fracking takes place. We looked far beyond that to look at the entire water cycle,” Burke said, noting that there are instances where the process of fracking itself compromised well construction, which in turn led to surface water contamination.
“[Fracking] is a very high pressure activity — pressure leads to the importance of having well construction that has well integrity that can endure that,” Burke said.
According to Burke, specific examples complement the assessment’s broad look at the water cycle involved with fracking, noting that it offers both industry and interest groups a chance to compare overall vulnerability assessments with specific examples of contamination.
“I think it’s important to clarify that this is a study of how we can best protect our water resources,” Burke said. “It’s not a question of safe or unsafe.”
The report is the largest comprehensive look to date at the controversial practice, the use of which has become widespread in recent years while inspiring political battles at both the local and federal level. Fracking involves the injection of liquid into underground rock in an attempt to break that rock and extract the oil and gas that might be inside — a process that, according to the assessment, uses an average of 44 billion gallons of water annually and could potentially impact the drinking water of thousands of communities across the United States.
The report offers both a meta-analysis of available scientific literature to date and a new research conducted by the EPA, to be published in tandem with the draft assessment.
“The purpose of the release as a draft,” Burke said, “is to assure that we have the highest level of peer review for this work.”
The draft assessment, which was first ordered by Congress in 2010, will now undergo an 85-day comment period and peer review before becoming final.