Politics & Policy

Even Obama’s EPA Now Admits Fracking Hasn’t Harmed Water Supplies

If it bleeds, it leads — a useful mantra for making sense of the Environmental Protection Agency’s comprehensive new study of fracking’s effects on America’s water supply.

The EPA has grown especially politicized under the Obama administration, so it’s a good bet that if it had found a clear-cut instance where fracking had devastated a city’s water, it wouldn’t be shy about saying so.

Instead, the report — which took four years and likely cost millions of dollars to complete — blandly concludes that “we did not find evidence that [hydraulic fracturing has] led to widespread, systematic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.”

In fact, the study never definitively identifies a single case where the fracking process itself — as opposed to mishaps or negligence — resulted in water contamination.

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In the absence of a smoking gun, the draft report debunks, in the most bureaucratic language possible, environmentalists’ alarmist claims that fracking is routinely poisoning the water supply. This must pain the EPA, which also extensively highlights the many risk factors already widely identified and successfully mitigated by the energy industry, including surface spills and improper well construction.

The study never definitively identifies a single case where the fracking process itself — as opposed to mishaps or negligence — resulted in water contamination.

As the EPA notes, at least 25,000 to 30,000 new fracking sites have been created since 2011, and older wells were also fracked. Such energy extraction is so common, the report finds, that more than 9.4 million people have lived within one mile of a fracking site since 2000, and 6,800 sources of public drinking water rest that close to such a site.

Though fracking is clearly widespread, the EPA found only a handful of cases where activities surrounding fracking “led to impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells.”

But even that isn’t what it initially sounds like. These findings “may also be due to other limiting factors,” including “the presence of other sources of contamination precluding a definitive link between hydraulic fracturing activities and an impact.”

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The report’s hedging doesn’t end there: “Impacts are defined as any change in the quality or quantity of drinking water resources,” the EPA notes, adding that “drinking water” includes “anybody of ground water or surface water that now serves, or in the future could serve, as a source of drinking water for public or private use.” That definition, it adds, “is broader than most federal and state regulatory definitions of drinking water and encompasses both fresh and non-fresh bodies of water.”

In other words, the “impacts” described are not necessarily water contamination, and the water supplies examined aren’t necessarily currently or soon to be used by humans.

The energy sector itself will admit that surface-level spills can contaminate water. Such contamination is not unique to fracking or any other industrial process. But even so, out of 151 spills the EPA identified, fracking fluids reached surface water in only 13 instances — and “none of the spills of hydraulic fracturing fluid were reported to have reached ground water.”

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In a similarly unsurprising discovery, the EPA reports that insufficient or deficient well casing can pose risks to the water supply. The energy industry is well aware of this, which explains why “most wells used in hydraulic fracturing operations have casing and a layer of cement to protect drinking water resources.”

The EPA did identify 600 wells — out of a whopping 23,000 — that did not use cement near groundwater — but it also notes that “the absence of cement does not in and of itself lead to an impact.”

The agency does acknowledge a few cases where well deficiencies “have or may have resulted in impacts to the drinking water resources.” But these incidents have more to do with “construction issues, sustained casing pressure, and the presence of natural faults and fractures” than the fracking process itself.

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The new report comes in the context of a widespread environmental push to shut down fracking. New York, Maryland, and Vermont have all enacted statewide bans or moratoriums. Additionally, at least 23 states have seen local or county bans or moratoriums; in total, at least 400 places have adopted some sort of restriction on fracking.

Overwhelmingly, these regulations are justified by fracking’s purported hazards to the air or water. The EPA’s report shows how scientifically unfounded these claims remain, despite their widespread acceptance among environmentalists and their liberal allies.

Altogether, the EPA report’s most earth-shattering revelation is that the energy industry has operated responsibly and safely, contrary to the hysterical allegations of green groups who oppose fracking. The Obama administration, long the foe of traditional energy, must have admitted this with great reluctance.

— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.

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