The Other Shoe Did Not Drop

After almost five years of study, EPA has finally released an external draft report on the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on drinking water sources. EPA concluded there are no “widespread, systemic impacts” from fracking, and the “number of identified cases where drinking water resources were impacted (were) small relative to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.”

Congress urged EPA to study the relationship between fracking and drinking water, using the best available science and independent sources of information. In March 2010, EPA announced it was accepting the challenge and would study the fracking water cycle, which included water acquisition, chemical mixing, well injection, flowback and produced water, and wastewater treatment and waste disposal. EPA prepared a plan to study the potential impacts in November 2011, published a progress report in December 2012 and released the draft report in June.

For each portion of the water cycle, EPA researched how fracking-related activities could impact drinking water and also whether there were any known instances where drinking water was impacted. Although EPA noted up to 30,000 wells were fracked annually between 2011 and 2014, it could only identify a handful of instances in which activities associated with a well undergoing fracking impacted drinking water. Even then, the actual impact noted by EPA could just as easily have occurred with a conventionally drilled well.

Spills and releases of water mixed with chemicals for use in fracking (fracking fluids) were documented. Between January 2006 and April 2012, EPA found 151 cases in which fracturing fluids spilled on or near a well pad, although it estimated based on reports from two states there could be between 100 to 3,700 spills annually on a nationwide basis. The most common cause of a spill was equipment failure, an event that could happen during any industrial activity. Spills and releases of wastewater, which include flowback and produced water, were also documented. Between January 2006 and April 2012, EPA found 225 cases in which produced water spilled on or near a well pad. Most of the spills resulted from a failure of container integrity.

Well injection — the actual practice of injecting fluids to fracture a subsurface formation — has been a focus of concern due to the possibility of contamination to groundwater and possible sources of drinking water. Inadequate cementing and casing of a well may lead to fracturing fluids or gas escaping the confines of the well. A casing failure may occur if it is not strong enough to sustain the high pressures associated with fracking. A lack of cement, not enough cement or degradation of cement can also lead to problems. However, each state has specific regulations governing proper casing and cementing. EPA did document contamination to groundwater due to inadequate cement in Bainbridge, Ohio, and inadequate casing in Killdeer, North Dakota. Additionally, fracking presents the possibility the actual fracture of the formation will allow migration of fluids or gas into a drinking water supply. However, the more separation between the fractured formation and the base of the drinking water supply serves to limit this possibility.

Given the large number of fracked wells and the minuscule number of documented incidents, many of which could occur in any industrial activity or as a result of conventional drilling, it would seem the conclusion to be drawn from this report is EPA has determined the actual process of fracking is safe. Obviously, care needs to be taken to ensure proper casing, cementing and materials handling occur. If so, fracking should continue to serve as a major driver in energy production.

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