An EPA report which was six years in the making concludes there is evidence fracking has contributed to drinking water contamination in some specific cases but says there is not enough information to judge the widespread risk to ground water. Because the interim report, published in 2015, said there was no evidence of widespread contamination from fracking, the final report is being taken as a shift in the direction of environmentalists. From the New York Times:
The new version is far more worrying than the first, which found “no evidence that fracking systemically contaminates water” supplies. In a significant change, that conclusion was deleted from the final study.
“E.P.A scientists chose not to include that sentence. The scientists concluded it could not be quantitatively supported,” said Thomas A. Burke, the E.P.A.’s science adviser, and deputy assistant administrator of the agency’s Office of Research and Development…
Mr. Burke said that the new report found evidence that fracking has contributed to drinking water contamination in all stages of the process: acquiring water to be used for fracking, mixing the water with chemical additives to make fracking fluids, injecting the chemical fluids underground, collecting the wastewater that flows out of fracking wells after injections, and storing the used wastewater.
However, the Associated Press take on the report is that it doesn’t offer much else for environmentalists to cheer:
A new report issued Tuesday said fracking poses a risk to drinking water in some circumstances, but a lack of information precludes a definitive statement on how severe the risk is.
“Because of the significant data gaps and uncertainties in the available data, 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 fracking activities, the EPA said in a report that raises more questions than answers.
The NY Times reports that Burke, the EPA science adviser, refused to issue any policy recommendations because the report was “full of gaps and holes.” Meanwhile, the American Petroleum Institute issued a statement suggesting politics was at work in the decision and looking forward to the incoming Trump administration:
“It is beyond absurd for the administration to reverse course on its way out the door,” said API Upstream Director Erik Milito. “The agency has walked away from nearly a thousand sources of information from published papers, technical reports and peer reviewed scientific reports demonstrating that industry practices, industry trends, and regulatory programs protect water resources at every step of the hydraulic fracturing process. Decisions like this amplify the public’s frustrations with Washington.
“Fortunately, the science and data clearly demonstrate that hydraulic fracturing does not lead to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources. Unfortunately, consumers have witnessed five years and millions of dollars expended only to see conclusion based in science changed to a conclusion based in political ambiguity. We look forward to working with the new administration in order to instill fact-based science back into the public policy process.”
This does seem like a win for the ‘leave it in the ground’ movement in the sense that they are no longer fighting against their opponents in the industry and an adverse conclusion by the federal government. Nevertheless, this does not appear to be a loss for those who support fracking. Given the stance of the incoming administration, no new regulation of fracking is likely to follow this report, nor should it given that it reached no definitive conclusion about risks. In any case, since most fracking takes place on state and private land, red states will continue to support it while blue states continue to oppose and, in some cases, ban it.