It was just a year and a half ago that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency came out with its first draft of a much-anticipated report about the impact that the boom in hydraulic fracking operations, or fracking, around the country was having on our drinking water. Environmentalists had encouraged such a study because the anecdotal evidence — people living near fracking rigs who suddenly drew brackish or discolored water, and now legendary episodes of people able to light their tap water with a match — suggested there was a major problem. There was certainly a debate about what caused water pollution from fracking — whether it was the underground drilling process itself or simply poor construction of the production wells that brought the natural gas and oil to the surface — but there was strong evidence that pollution is taking place.
Thus, it was a shock when the EPA’s initial draft — while listing compelling evidence that pollution was indeed occurring near fracking pads — offered a statement in the introduction suggesting that its efforts had uncovered no such link. Needless to say, many newspapers and media outlets across the country ran with this headline as well — suggesting that the federal research had vindicated Big Oil and Gas. Few journalists and few citizens, except for the most ardent environmentalists, went to that next level of information or spoke with experts who had a very different view of the data.
But the first draft was exactly that — a draft. Now, in the waning days of the Obama administration, the EPA has released the final version of the report. This time, it more clearly spells out the truth about fracking and the water that we drink:
The Environmental Protection Agency has concluded that hydraulic fracturing (fracking) can affect drinking water.
In light of the facts that tap water near some fracking wells has become flammable, that two families in Pennsylvania last year won a court case over the impacts of fracking on their water, and that scientists have found arsenic in water sources near fracking, the EPA’s announcement Tuesday should not come as a surprise.
But it does, since just 18 months ago, a draft version of the EPA’s fracking report said that the EPA “did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.” Environmentalists applauded the finalized report, which they say is a more accurate representation of the science and data behind fracking.
“EPA’s report confirms what experts and the science show: that fracking operations put our drinking water at risk,” said Rachel Richardson, director of Environment America’s Stop Drilling Program. “That families from Colorado to Pennsylvania have had their water contaminated from fracking should be evidence enough, but today’s report confirms: fracking puts our water at risk.”
The EPA does not necessarily conclude that the effects are “widespread” or “systemic.” Instead, what this report more accurately depicts is the lack of data on fracking’s impact on water.
The report goes on to spell out a number of areas in which fracking can affect water quality, from straining the water supplies in drought-parched sections of the country to spills of water used in the fracking process that is laced with toxic chemicals. It also points out, correctly, that a lack of baseline data on water quality before the fracking began makes it difficult to gauge the full impact. Still, the EPA study becomes another chapter in the saga of how fracking threatens the American environment.
That’s a saga that may have an unhappy ending. The incoming Trump administration is aggressively friendly to Big Oil and Gas. The president-elect’s nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is the current CEO of ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil company. The pick for energy secretary is Rick Perry, the former Texas governor who sits on the board of the company looking to complete the Dakota Access pipeline. And Trump’s choices to head the EPA and run the Interior Department also have a long history of hostility toward the environment. That doesn’t mean the findings of this major study can be undone — but they may well be ignored. Hopefully, these results will at least encourage regulators on the state and local level to do the right thing when it comes to fracking.
Find out more about the EPA report on fracking and drinking water from ThinkProgress: https://thinkprogress.org/epa-finalizes-water-fracking-report-7e59613aa19d#.9fkm2vkic
Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America: http://shop.benbellabooks.com/crude-justice
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