USEPA Finds No Systemic Contamination of Drinking Water from Hydraulic Fracturing

Posted on June 23, 2015 by Chester Babst

On June 4, 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a draft “Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources,” which finds no evidence that hydraulic fracturing activities have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water supplies.  According to the draft assessment, between 2000 and 2013, there were an estimated 9.4 million people living within one mile of a well that was hydraulically fractured.  The draft assessment supports the assertion that state agencies, as the primary regulator of oil and gas development in the United States, are effectively governing hydraulic fracturing activities by the industry.  

Initially announced by USEPA in March 2010, the study has a broad scope.  USEPA reviewed each stage of the “hydraulic fracturing water cycle” – including water acquisition, chemical mixing, well injection, flowback and produced water recapture, and wastewater treatment and disposal – to assess for any widespread, systemic impacts on the quality or quantity of drinking water resources.  The agency also used an expanded definition of drinking water resources that includes currently undrinkable saline aquifers that might be desalinated for consumptive use in the future.  

Although the draft assessment acknowledged that hydraulic fracturing could potentially contaminate drinking water resources, USEPA found that the actual occurrences of such impacts were “small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.”  The risks related to hydraulic fracturing activities identified in the draft assessment included:  water withdrawal in times of low availability; spills of fracturing fluids and produced water; fracturing directly into underground drinking water resources; below ground migration of liquids and gases; and inadequate treatment and discharge of wastewater.  

The draft assessment noted that the primary means of disposing of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing activities conducted in the United States is underground injection wells.  However, one notable exception to this finding is in the Marcellus shale play, where USEPA found that most wastewater is reused by industry.  The high percentage of reuse and recycling of wastewater in the Marcellus shale play is a practice that industry has long asserted is a valuable means of reducing the amount of freshwater needed for well development activities.

USEPA is expected to publish a final assessment after the completion of a notice and comment period, which is currently open and concludes on August 28, 2015, and a review of the draft assessment by the Science Advisory Board Hydraulic Fracturing Research Advisory Panel.  The Panel has scheduled a public meeting to conduct a review of the draft assessment from October 28 to October 30, 2015, and teleconferences to discuss the draft assessment on September 30, October 1, and October 19, 2015.