EPA says fracking could contaminate drinking water

Feds identify no widespread problem but concede to insufficient data.


The oil and gas industry has long claimed that there is no evidence that hydraulic fracturing has contaminated drinking water.  But a major Environmental Protection Agency assessment released last week determined that fracking and another widely used drilling techniques called horizontal drilling have the potential to contaminate drinking water. The study also identified the greatest risks to drinking water, including spills, water withdrawals, wastewater releases and migration of gas and oil underground.

The nearly 1,000-page EPA study, a draft awaiting public comment and scientific review, found no evidence that  “widespread” pollution of drinking water has occurred from these drilling techniques, which have driven a renaissance of the U.S. oil and gas industries over recent years. The number of known cases of well contamination and other impacts to drinking water sources was small compared to the estimated 25,000 to 30,000 new wells that were drilled and hydraulically fractured between 2011 and 2014 and the many more older wells that also were fracked, the study states.

When wastewater is not properly discharged, it has the potential to contaminate streams directly. Pictured here, Stream of wastewater flows from oilfield on Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.
Environmental Protection Agency
Industry groups say this conclusion confirms the safety of their operations. But the EPA study concedes that the lack of sufficient scientific research may explain why the agency failed to find widespread impacts.

“That means they don’t know how often these things occur,” said Rob Jackson, a Stanford University environmental science professor.

Even after several years’ work, the federal EPA failed to answer questions about the impacts of new drilling techniques that caused panic in communities across the country, including as HCN has reported in Colorado’s Front Range.

When the EPA launched its study of hydraulic fracturing and drinking water in 2011, scientists and environmental advocates expected it would fill in the knowledge gaps.

“This was supposed to be their job,” said Jackson, who is a leading researcher on the issue. “My frustration with the report is they left the difficult stuff out. They didn’t sink their teeth into the meat of this issue; into the controversial parts of this issue. That’s what we hoped EPA would do. Who else has the resource to do it?”

The study is less conclusive than originally envisioned in part because the EPA failed to reach agreement with industry to do the kinds of studies scientists and the federal government believe are necessary. These studies would test drinking water sources before and after companies hydraulically fracture wells nearby. The EPA’s new assessment repeatedly cites the need for such studies.

Along the way, other significant efforts by the EPA to seek answers got derailed. The EPA investigated a possible case of well contamination in Pavillion, Wyoming. But as HCN reported, after EPA’s original findings linked hydraulic fracturing to water contamination, industry interests challenged agency scientists’ methodology and, in 2013, the agency abruptly dropped its research. The EPA backed out of investigations in Texas and Pennsylvania, as well.

Still, the EPA’s new assessment, which draws from hundreds of reports and data sources, does have merit in pinpointing the riskiest steps for drinking water in modern drilling and production processes:

  • When companies withdraw large quantities of fresh water for hydraulic fracturing during times or in areas with low water availability.
  • When companies spill hydraulic fracturing fluids and produced water. (In Colorado, the state with the second-most wells hydraulically fractured over the period the EPA studied, the spill rate was one every 100 wells.)
  • When companies fracture directly into underground drinking water resources.
  • When liquids and gases migrate below ground. (This can be caused by intense pressures used in hydraulic fracturing, poorly constructed wells, or when the casing or cement used in wells degrade.)
  • When companies fail to adequately treat or properly discharge of wastewater, including when, as HCN has reported, they release that wastewater directly onto the land or into streams. 

These weaknesses were illuminated by retrospective studies the EPA conducted, that examined suspected contamination of drinking water from hydraulic fracturing in five locations including the Colorado’s Raton Basin and North Dakota’s Bakken Shale.

In Killdeer, North Dakota, a blowout during the hydraulic fracturing of an oil well in 2010 caused the release of fracking fluids and produced water. Drinking water wells did not show signs of contamination, but two monitoring wells found both brine and tert-butyl alcohol in the Killdeer aquifer. An EPA analysis determined the only possible source of this contamination was the 2010 blowout.

The EPA failed to definitively link contamination to hydraulic fracturing in other cases. For instance, people in Colorado’s Las Animas and Huerfano counties had complained about a change of appearance, odor and taste of water from their wells. EPA’s study showed levels of dissolved methane in domestic wells that were consistent with natural background levels in the area. However, in one sampling area, two years after hydraulic fracturing, gas migrated into a shallow aquifer used for drinking water. The EPA and other researchers have been unable to prove definitively that the gas migrated because of the hydraulic fracturing and not because of natural causes.

The new assessment repeatedly stressed how holes in research and data often make it difficult to make definitive conclusions. For example, the EPA analyzed 151 spills of hydraulic fracturing fluid in 11 states and found that the most common cause was equipment failure, particularly the failure of valves and blowout preventers, devices intended to prevent uncontrolled releases of oil and gas. However, EPA stressed data was lacking to analyze spills. For instance, only two states, Colorado and Pennsylvania provided statistics on spill frequency. 

Other gaps noted in the EPA report included the dearth of science on the fate of the vast quantities of fracking fluids that don’t flow back to the surface and the lack of data on how much fracking takes place in formations that also contain drinking water.

Congress requested the assessment in response to communities’ concerns and questions about the safety of the industry. The EPA estimates that public drinking water systems that serve more than 8.6 million people were located within a mile of at least one well hydraulically fractured in 2013 alone. That doesn’t include the many private wells located near such well sites.

Congressional Republicans said the study affirms that the industry needs no additional federal regulation.

“We all want clean water, and we all want affordable energy, and today the administration confirmed we can have both,” said Fred Upton, R-Michigan, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “The (Obama) administration should now reconsider the burdensome regulations it intends to place on hydraulic fracturing on federal lands, and should certainly refrain from any notion of broader federal involvement in an issue that states and communities are safely managing.”

But Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, took away another message: “Irresponsible oil and gas development puts water quality at risk for millions of Americans, and no amount of spin can change that.”

Environmental groups and scientists stressed that the report underscores how many questions remain. “We look at this report as very much the beginning of a process to understand what the impacts of unconventional oil and gas are to the water cycle,” said Mark Brownstein of Environmental Defense Fund.

EPA’s assessment is open for public comment while the document undergoes review by the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board, which plans public teleconferences and meetings in September and October.

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's DC Correspondent. 

High Country News Classifieds
    Needed: instructor with 5 years *documented* instruction experience, current qualifications, M-410 or equivalent, and able to work as-needed for NM non-profit working with at-risk youth.
    Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...
    The National Parks Conservation Association, the leading non-profit conservation organization protecting Americas national parks, seeks a Program Manager for its Colorado Field Office located in...
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
    One of the most renowned community-based collaboratives in the country seeks full-time Operations Manager to oversee administrative, financial, fund development, and board development duties. BS/BA...
    in NM. 23 acres, off the grid, rustic cabin, organic gardens, fruit trees, fenced, call 505-204-8432 evenings.
    The San Juan Mountains Association in Durango, CO is seeking a Director of Visitor Services & Bookstore Operations to lead our visitor information program &...
    1800 sf home on 4.12 acres surrounded by Natl Forest and recreational opportunities in a beautiful area (Happy Valley) between Torrey and Boulder. [email protected], www.bouldermoutainreality/properties/grover/off-the-grid-in-happy-valley,...
    potential fruit/hay with house, Hotchkiss, CO, Scott Ellis, 970-420-0472, [email protected]
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success...
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.