Inside the EPA's Big Study on Fracking

  • Marcellus shale gas-drilling site along Pennsylvania Route 87, Lycoming County. Photo: Nicholas A. Tonell via Flickr

June 12, 2015

This month, the EPA released a draft of a much-anticipated study on fracking and water pollution. The big headline: Fracking doesn’t seem to have caused widespread problems. But the study did find some instances where drilling activity has polluted drinking water. This week, our energy reporter Reid Frazier talked with Ellen Gilmer, who’s been covering the story for Energy Wire. Here are some highlights.

On the Big Takeway from the Study

“The biggest takeaway is the fact that there are documented instances of drinking water contamination, and that is through the whole water cycle of fracking. So not just the injection itself, but where the drillers acquire the water for fracking, when they treat it with chemicals, when they do the injection, what they do with the wastewater. There are pathways really at every level that have been documented.”

On the Limitations of the Study

“The biggest limitation is that EPA, with the evidence that it has, is unable to really quantify how often contamination can happen. So while it’s come to the conclusion that there’s no widespread risk of contamination, it’s really not sure what percentage of wells have caused contamination or have been contaminated.

The reason for that is that they don't really have baseline studies. They don't know what drinking water was like in these areas before drilling began. They don’t know all the chemicals that are used in fracking. Companies are still allowed to claim trade secrets because that’s their confidential business information, so EPA doesn’t have that information. And EPA describes that factor itself as a major knowledge gap in understanding exactly the threat of the impact.”

The Drilling Industry’s Reaction

“The industry is very excited to be able to point to an EPA study that draws the conclusion that there is no widespread impact. Industry is using that to tell its critics in the environmental community and elsewhere that—‘Hey, we’ve been right all along. We told you this was safe and now even the Obama administration's EPA agrees that it is safe.’”

Policy Implications

"Already Republicans in Congress have looked at the study and said, given the results of the study, or at least given that headline—"no widespread impact"—we should re-evaluate how much regulation we’re doing of the oil and gas industry. Additionally, environmentalists are looking at the other side of the study—the fact that there are documented cases of water contamination from fracking—and they’re saying EPA should use this as the impetus to craft stricter regulations."