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Fracking Has Not Had Big Effect on Water Supply, E.P.A. Says While Noting Risks

by: Coral Davenport
June 4, 2015
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photo caption: A fracking site in New Town, N.D., last May. The drilling method is set to make the United States the world's largest energy producer, but it has also led to fears about the contamination of drinking water. Jim Wilson/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — A landmark Environmental Protection Agency report on the impact of hydraulic fracturing has found no evidence that the contentious technique of oil and gas extraction has had a widespread effect on the nation’s water supply, the agency said Thursday.

Nevertheless, the long-awaited draft report found that the techniques used in hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, do have the potential to contaminate drinking water.

It notes several specific instances in which the chemicals used in fracking led to contamination of water, including drinking water wells, but it emphasized that the number of cases was small compared with the number of fracked wells.

The agency has been working on the study since 2010, when it was requested by Congress.

The study “greatly advances our scientific understanding of fracking’s impacts, and it serves as a foundation for future study,” said Thomas A. Burke, deputy assistant administrator of the agency’s Office of Research and Development.

Both supporters and opponents of fracking seized on the results. Oil and gas companies cheered the report as a vindication of the technique, while environmental advocates pointed to the findings as evidence that the practice is a threat to safe water supplies.

Fracking, the use of which has increased sharply over the last decade, has led to a boom in American oil and gas production, putting the nation on track to be the world’s largest energy producer. Fracking has also created many jobs, driving new economic growth in states like North Dakota.

But the technique — which involves fracturing the earth and injecting a cocktail of chemicals underground to extract oil and gas trapped beneath — has also led to fears that the process poses a threat to drinking water.

The fears have prompted many individuals to sue fracking companies. A 2010 documentary, “Gasland,” depicted people who lived close to fracking sites suffering from sickness and foul-smelling water. Since then, the State of New York and a handful of communities across the country have moved to ban the practice entirely.

In conducting the study, the agency evaluated more than 3,500 previously published reports, studies and data sources, including articles published in science and engineering journals; and reports by federal and state governments, nongovernmental organizations and industry groups.

The agency also conducted additional scientific research, resulting in more than 20 peer-reviewed reports and papers. The draft report will now be made available for public comment and peer review by an independent board of scientists before being finalized.

The study estimates that 25,000 to 30,000 new wells were drilled and hydraulically fractured annually from 2011 to 2014, and concludes that fracking took place in at least 25 states from 1990 to 2013. It found that from 2000 to 2013, approximately 9.4 million people lived within one mile of a fracked well.

What is more, approximately 6,800 sources of drinking water from public water systems were located within one mile of at least one hydraulically fractured well during the same period. These sources provided drinking water to more than 8.6 million people in 2013.

Environmentalists have been pushing for years for the Obama administration to put forth aggressive new safety regulations on fracking, and the Interior Department recently proposed new rules on fracking on public lands, which affects about 10 percent of all fracking wells. The oil and gas industry pointed to the report to make the case that new federal rules were not necessary.

Erik Milito, a director at the American Petroleum Institute, which lobbies for oil and gas companies, said that the evidence gathered by the E.P.A. confirmed that “hydraulic fracturing is being done safely under the strong environmental stewardship of state regulators and industry best practices.”

But environmental groups pointed to what they saw as holes in the report. In particular, they said, the report’s authors relied on data supplied by companies and wrote that limitations in data “preclude a determination of the frequency of impacts with any certainty.”

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, which has lobbied against fracking, said, “The E.P.A.’s water quality study confirms what millions of Americans already know — that dirty oil and gas fracking contaminates drinking water.”