EPA fracking report offers few answers on drinking water

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is releasing its scientific report on the impacts from hydraulic fracturing activities on drinking water resources, which provides states and others the scientific foundation to better protect drinking water resources in areas where hydraulic fracturing is occurring or being considered.

Fracking is the controversial process by which high-pressured water and chemicals are injected into the ground to break apart shale rock and release the oil and gas stored in it.

In 2015, the agency issued an initial assessment that there was no evidence fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, causes groundwater contamination.

"Based upon available scientific information, we found that hydraulic fracturing activities in the United States are carried out in a way that has not led to widespread systemic impacts on drinking water sources", said Burke.

"The value of high-quality science has never been more important in helping to guide decisions around our nation's fragile water resources", said Dr. Thomas A. Burke, EPA science advisor and deputy assistant administrator of EPA's Office of Research and Development.

Anti-fracking groups were quick to herald the EPA report, just as fracking and gas industry groups did when the draft report was released with the finding of no evidence of system-wide impacts.

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The final report outlines a series of ways in which fracking-related activities can affect drinking water resources.

Despite not giving a definitive answer about the impact of fracking on drinking water, Burke said the report offered the most comprehensive record of scientific data on the relationship.

And it's a U-turn that comes right before a new administration takes power, with a nominated EPA chief who is a fracking advocate. Oil tycoon Harold Hamm told a University of Oklahoma dean past year that he wanted fired certain scientists who were studying links between oil and gas activity and the state's almost 400-fold increase in earthquakes, according to the dean's e-mail recounting the conversation.

The top-line findings of the study changed after input from the EPA's independent Science Advisory Board, which, in August, insisted the agency quantify the draft's conclusion. As attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt repeated defended the oil and gas industry at the expense of public health and the environment and he is now involved in suing the EPA over the Clean Power Plan (My colleague Angela Anderson has a fuller report here).

But the final report deleted that conclusion.

In the final version, which was vetted by the agency's own Science Advisory Board, the report said it found evidence of drinking water impacts "at each stage in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle". It also refrains from making direct policy recommendations from its scientific conclusions.

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Oil group Energy in Depth spokeswoman Katie Brown said the overall conclusions remained largely the same.

"It is beyond absurd for the administration to reverse course on its way out the door", said Erik Milito, director of upstream and industry operations for the American Petroleum Institute, in a statement. "We are glad EPA resisted oil and gas industry spin, followed the science, and delivered the facts".

"The agency has walked away from almost a thousand sources of information from. technical reports and peer-reviewed scientific reports demonstrating that. hydraulic fracturing does not lead to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources", said Erik Milito of the American Petroleum Institute, an industry lobbying group.

The science advisory board's peer review process was open to public comment in which scientists tasked with reviewing the study heard from impacted community members, health professionals, and the scientific community that took issue with the study's conclusions.

The number of contamination cases was small compared to the tens of thousands of wells that are fracked nationwide, the EPA said.

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