On December 13, 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the final version of its study of the potential drinking-water impacts of hydraulic fracturing (known as fracking) for recovering oil and gas. The final version replaces a draft version released in 2015. The 666-page report (with 527 pages of appendices) is “Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas: Impacts from the Hydraulic Fracturing Water Cycle on Drinking Water Resources.” The full report, a 50-page Executive Summary, and other EPA information is available online at https://www.epa.gov/hfstudy.
Following is the Conclusions section of the Executive Summary:
“This report describes how activities in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle can impact—and have impacted—drinking water resources and the factors that influence the frequency and severity of those impacts. It also describes data gaps and uncertainties that limited our ability to draw additional conclusions about impacts on drinking water resources from activities in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle. Both types of information—what we know and what we do not know—provide stakeholders with scientific information to support future efforts.
“The uncertainties and data gaps identified throughout this report can be used to identify future efforts to further our understanding of the potential for activities in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle to impact drinking water resources and the factors that affect the frequency and severity of those impacts. Future efforts could include, for example, groundwater and surface water monitoring in areas with hydraulically fractured oil and gas production wells or targeted research programs to better characterize the environmental fate and transport and human health hazards associated with chemicals in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle. Future efforts could identify additional vulnerabilities or other factors that affect the frequency and/or severity of impacts.
“In the near term, decision-makers could focus their attention on the combinations of hydraulic fracturing water cycle activities and local- or regional-scale factors that are more likely than others to result in more frequent or more severe impacts. These include:
*Water withdrawals for hydraulic fracturing in times or areas of low water availability, particularly in areas with limited or declining groundwater resources;
*Spills during the management of hydraulic fracturing fluids and chemicals or produced water that result in large volumes or high concentrations of chemicals reaching groundwater resources;
*Injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into wells with inadequate mechanical integrity, allowing gases or liquids to move to groundwater resources; *Injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids directly into groundwater resources;
*Discharge of inadequately treated hydraulic fracturing wastewater to surface water resources; and
*Disposal or storage of hydraulic fracturing wastewater in unlined pits, resulting in contamination of groundwater resources.
“The above combinations of activities and factors highlight, in particular, the vulnerability of groundwater resources to activities in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle. By focusing attention on the situations described above, impacts on drinking water resources from activities in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle could be prevented or reduced.
“Overall, hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas is a practice that continues to evolve. Evaluating the potential for activities in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle to impact drinking water resources will need to keep pace with emerging technologies and new scientific studies. This report provides a foundation for these efforts, while helping to reduce current vulnerabilities to drinking water resources.”
Here’s a sample of news media articles on the study’s release (hyperlinks functional as of 12/14/16):
Reversing Course, E.P.A. Says Fracking Can Contaminate Drinking Water, New York Times, 12/13/16.
Fracking Can Taint Drinking Water, EPA Report Finds; Environmental agency’s study on hydraulic fracturing walks back earlier findings, Wall Street Journal, 12/13/16.
EPA finds fracking can impact drinking water, shifts emphasis from earlier report to focus on risks, CNBC, 12/13/16.
EPA report on fracking raises more questions than answers, Associated Press, as published by CBS News, 12/13/16.
Fracking can taint drinking water, EPA report finds, Fox News, 12/14/16.