Oil industry supporters rejoiced Thursday when a newly released draft of an Environmental Protection Agency report found no evidence that hydraulic fracturing does widespread damage to drinking water.
Oil industry advocates said the assessment finally confirmed that fracking is safe.
But environmental groups, which have long fought fracking techniques for allegedly damaging natural resources in pursuit of the fossil fuels that are producing global warming, claim the report’s preliminary conclusions are suspect.
Some advocates say the study was limited in scope. Others say the potential to damage water resources was understated in the study.
Hydraulic fracturing is a highly contested method used by the oil and gas industry of injecting water and chemicals into a rock formation to fracture oil- and gas-producing formations.
The report draft did identify some potential issues with water resources, some of which the report said were not unique to fracking.
Problems included water withdrawal in areas with fewer water resources, potential spills of hydraulic fluids and wastewater, and poorly cemented wells that could cause contamination when below-ground gas and liquid move.
But the report noted the frequency that fracking affects drinking water was relatively small compared with the number of fracked wells.
“EPA’s report on hydraulic fracturing confirms what we have known for over 60 years . . . hydraulic fracturing is safe,” Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said in a statement.
The study does admit several limitations in its scope – limitations that environmentalists say call for further research and study to really understand fracking’s implications.
For example, before the study got underway, the EPA said it would conduct two kinds of case studies: retrospective case studies and prospective case studies.
Retrospective case studies examine instances of reported drinking water contamination. Prospective case studies would take samples of water before and after fracking. While the retrospective studies were conducted, the prospective ones were not.
“Baseline testing is crucial to determining whether fracking caused contamination,” said Elizabeth Ouzts, a spokeswoman with Environment America, a federation of environmental advocacy organizations. “It’s a shame that the EPA yielded to industry pressure on this point.”
The EPA worked for three years to try to find good locations for prospective case studies. The agency wanted to gather data from the site for at least one year before and after fracking.
“We were unable to find a location and determine a time line to meet this criteria,” Liz Purchia, an EPA spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “We were able to gather the data necessary to best answer the questions that were in the study.”
The draft released Thursday was the result of a congressional push for examination into the impacts hydraulic fracturing techniques could have on drinking water. The study will undergo review by the Science Advisory Board and a period for public review and comments before final publication.
“Based on what I’ve seen, the study does point out ways in which fracking can contaminate drinking water,” said Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst at the Land and Wildlife Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental action group. “So I think there’s definitely conclusions to be drawn about regulations to protect drinking water in ways that are better than what we are doing now.”