The Environmental Protection Agency recently released a long-anticipated study on hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, and found there were no widespread and systematic deficiencies on the country’s drinking resources. The report did, however, unravel evidence that suggests fracking creates several vulnerabilities that could potentially affect drinking water in the U.S.
The study was mostly a compilation of data drawn from different scientific databases -- more than 950 sources in all. The report used published papers, technical reports and data from different interest groups to evaluate the impact of fracking.
The practice was first introduced in the United States in 1949, and the fracking industry quickly boomed into one of the most profitable oil-producing businesses in the country. With more than 2 million oil and gas wells enveloping U.S. land, fracking contributes 43 percent of the oil production and 67 percent of the natural gas production in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. While the oil and gas wells that sprout up from fracking create a great domestic resource, environmentalists and homeowners near fracking areas have been fighting about its consequences for more than 30 years.
The EPA’s nearly five-year project only analyzed the impact of hydraulic fracturing on the water supply for human consumption, but failed to review the risks of air quality, dangerous gas emissions and mishandling waste. Of the health and environmental impacts listed above, the EPA tackled the most controversial topic in the study.
In 2012, a Texas couple sued oil and gas company Range Resources after exemplifying the mass build-up of methane in their drinking well by placing a lighter under a running faucet and watching the water turn into a bubbly, undrinkable fire. The couple, Steve and Shyla Lipsky, lost the case after Range Resources persistently said the methane came from natural seeps far beneath the bedrock.
According to the EPA, drinking methane-laden water is not viewed as a health hazard. The real concern with fracking lies in whether other chemicals, along with methane, could be creeping into clean-ish water pipes. The report noted that water resources are particularly vulnerable when there’s potential of leaking wells and above-ground wastewater spills.
The Houston Chronicle began an investigative report to see how fracking indirectly affects the workers on these big Texas plants. The paper found that fatal traffic accidents have seen a huge spike recently because of the fatigued workers driving home from the wells after sometimes 24-hour shifts. Last year in Colorado, a pipe ruptured and killed one Halliburton employee and seriously injured two more.
The EPA has consistently said there was no evidence that links fracking to groundwater contamination. In 2011, then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told a congressional panel that fracking didn’t show any signs of dirtying drinking water. Now, four years later, the report illuminates much of the same stance.
Research on water use from fracking proved that the practice doesn’t use that much water relative to the total income states receive. In Pennsylvania, one of the fracking industry's most used states, drilling only consumed 0.20 percent of total water use in the state in 2011. There are certainly economic benefits involved in fracking, but states have to weigh whether those impacts are worth the risk environmentally.
New York state, which shares a border with Pennsylvania, banned fracking because of the health and environmental questions surrounding the issue. In February, 15 towns threatened Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo with secession from the state, saying they wanted to join Pennsylvania and capitalize on the resources they’re missing out on.
While the towns itching to secede look at the possibilities of new jobs and more money for the area, the move is far-fetched. New York will look at the recent EPA report and decide whether fracking isn’t as dangerous as previously anticipated or if the report only scratched the surface on health and environmental risks.
Image credit: Flickr/Daniel Foster