The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the final draft of a study last month on the effects on drinking water of fracking (high volume hydraulic fracturing for the extraction of oil and natural gas). The study had been requested by Congress in 2010.
An earlier, 2004, EPA study had found that fracking had no adverse effect on drinking water. That conclusion was then used to exempt fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Since then, there has been an accumulation of evidence that fracking has substantial negative consequences for a whole range of environmental and health concerns.
The EPA study found no evidence that fracking has caused “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.” It goes on to say, however, that, under certain circumstances, wells can leak and cause local contamination of the water table.
Energy industry representatives and political supporters of fracking have taken this as constituting a “clean bill of health” for the process, the use of which has expanded explosively over the last few decades.
Fracking is now taking place across substantial portions of the US, from California to Pennsylvania and Texas to the Dakotas, bolstering the position of the US as a major oil and gas producer. There are fracking wells in half of US states, with at least 12.2 million people living near or drinking water from a source within a mile of a fracked well. In Pennsylvania alone there are currently about 8,800 active fracking wells.
The EPA report is consistent with the Obama administration’s long-established support for fracking (see: White House announces pro-corporate fracking rules).
The EPA’s analysis is narrow in scope and the language carefully crafted so as to appear to say more than it really does. While stating that the numbers of documented incidents is low compared to the number of wells, the report represents an acknowledgement that contamination does occur, a fact that has long been denied by fracking supporters.