The Clean Water Blog

Fracking operations in North Dakota

Just Released Fracking Study is First Step in “Putting Drinking Water First”

Today the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its long-awaited draft Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil & Gas on Drinking Water Resources. For anyone who cares about drinking water, this is big news. The Assessment includes literature review and new research on dozens of topics related to how fracking threatens drinking water.

Spoiler alert: As my colleague John Noël says in our press statement here: The Assessment smashes the myth that there can be oil and gas development without impacts to drinking water. Fracking is a complex process that poses a complex array of potential risks to drinking water. The Study lets us know what we need to do to protect drinking water and public health by outlining the numerous vulnerabilities throughout the fracking water lifecycle.

Clean Water Action’s Putting Drinking Water First approach means making drinking water impacts a primary consideration in decisions about activities that could lead to contamination of drinking water sources. It is our contention that doing this not only protects this precious resource, but leads to the most protective and most efficient controls on pollution. No one has yet been able to show me a situation in which it makes sense to transfer the burden of pollution from the source to the Public Water Systems and water drinkers downstream.  

All of our activities – growing food, building our communities, making products, producing energy – can lead to pollution that threatens drinking water. What’s striking about EPA’s Assessment is just how many different types of potential risks to drinking water are associated with hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas. As we have said over and over, this is an intensive industrial process and it occurs in many places not just in one building or one place. It extracts salts, chemicals and radioactive materials along with oil and gas and these materials are extremely problematic if they make their way into drinking water sources. On top of that, the process generally includes using more chemicals, of which there are thousands and often the mixtures are secret. It involves drilling many wells and the track record for keeping those wells from leaking is far from ideal.  

It’s not a surprise that hydraulic fracturing’s threats to drinking water are so numerous and we are pleased to see that EPA looked at the lifecycle of water impacts. We would argue that similar research is needed on all oil and gas activities, not just this process.  

As I wrote when EPA published a progress report on this project three years ago, this Assessment doesn’t answer every question and it won’t provide a magic bullet for navigating controversial energy and technology policy issues, but it’s a signal that we’re willing to invest in science to understand the risks posed by oil and gas activities to our drinking water and that’s a positive sign.