President Obama’s EPA has given the incoming Trump administration something to think sip on — whether fracking for natural gas has a negative effect on drinking water supplies. The current EPA has cast some doubt on whether the process is as safe as what it had previously disclosed.
The EPA now says that fracking can impact drinking water supplies in some cases and it has withdrawn its earlier findings that there are no “widespread” implications from drilling for unconventional gas. According to the release, new findings say that supplies could be at risk if:
- 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 handling 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; and
- Disposal or storage of hydraulic fracturing wastewater in unlined pits resulting in contamination of groundwater resources.
“Data gaps and uncertainties limited EPA’s ability to fully assess the potential impacts on drinking water resources locally and nationally,” the report says. “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.
Hydraulic fracturing, the formal name for fracking, involves using a mixture of water, sand and chemicals to ply loose the shale gas from the rocks where it is embedded at least a mile beneath the surface. The concern is that the dirty water comes back up during the process.
The drilling process, of course, is responsible for revolutionizing the America’s economy, making natural gas not just the king of the electricity market here but also making it vital to attracting new manufacturing and chemical businesses to these shores.
Yesterday’s EPA report differs from an earlier version released in June 2015 that said fracking was safe and that there were no “widespread” problems with drinking water as a result of it.
Environmentalists have long been concerned about tainted drinking water supplies in addition to the increased emissions from both drilling and using natural gas.
Business groups, however, said that this week’s announcement was largely political. “It is beyond absurd for the administration to reverse course on its way out the door,” said American Petroleum Institute Upstream Director Erik Milito.
EPA’s research looked at 38,000 oil and gas wells where the technology has been employed, all between 2000 and 2013. The vast majority of them got a good bill of health in the review released in June 2015.
The Obama administration wants stronger standards for well construction to limit fugitive releases and safer dispensing of dirty water that flows to the surface after drilling. It is unclear how President-elect Trump will address these issues, except to say that he is proponent of increasing drilling rights to optimize the US supply of natural gas.
Just how all this is ultimately resolved will, in fact, have profound implications – not just on drillers but also on those who use natural gas. Consider: Production from shale formations has grown from a negligible amount just a few years ago to 15 percent of total U.S. natural gas production. It will continue to grow by 1.6 percent a year, says the US Energy Information Administration, which adds that natural gas will make up 45-50 percent utility generation market in 25 years.