EPA reverses course on fracking safety

BY DEVIN HENRY - 12/13/16 11:43 AM EST
EPA reverses course on fracking safety
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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reversed course on Tuesday, saying in a long-awaited report that it doesn’t have enough information to make a broad conclusion about widespread threats to drinking water from hydraulic fracturing.

A government report on the safety of fracking released Tuesday deleted a draft assessment’s conclusion that the process has no national “widespread, systemic impact” on drinking water.

Instead, the EPA determined that fracking can have an impact on drinking water under certain circumstances, a change in position that drew backlash from the drilling industry.

“There are instances when hyrdofracking has impacted drinking water resources. That’s an important conclusion, an important consideration for moving forward,” said Thomas Burke, a deputy assistant administrator and science adviser at the EPA, on a call with reporters Tuesday.

Burke added, however, that when it comes to a “national, systemic conclusion” about the impacts of fracking, “that’s a different question that this study does not have adequate evidence to really make a conclusive, quantified statement.”

The conclusion comes in the EPA’s final review of the data and research into the impact of fracking on drinking water. The agency’s 1,200-page report, released Tuesday, is mandated by Congress and was five years in the making.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.

The process has revolutionized the American oil and gas sector, making the United States the top gas producer in the world. But critics say it threatens the environment and public health.

A draft version of the EPA’s report, released in June 2015, concluded that fracking has not “led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.”

But the final report deleted that conclusion. Instead, it said fracking could impact drinking water throughout the drilling process. Authors pointed to water withdrawals in areas with low water supplies, chemical or water spills, the injection of fracking fluids into wells with “inadequate mechanical integrity” and fracking fluids entering the groundwater supply.

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. Burke said EPA scientists could not do that and pulled the conclusion from the report.

“Scientists put that language in the draft report, and scientists made the decision not to include it in the final report based on feedback from the Science Advisory Board and their interpretation of the available science,” he said.

Oil and gas industry groups on Tuesday said the report has mixed messages.

“It is beyond absurd for the administration to reverse course on its way out the door,” said American Petroleum Institute Upstream Director Erik Milito.

“The science and data clearly demonstrate that hydraulic fracturing does not lead to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources. Unfortunately, consumers have witnessed five years and millions of dollars expended only to see conclusion based in science changed to a conclusion based in political ambiguity.”

Energy In Depth, an industry-funded group launched by the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said that despite changes in the central conclusion, the report still  “blows apart the anti-fracking campaign’s most common claim, namely that hydraulic fracturing is polluting groundwater all across America.”

But, Katie Brown, a writer and spokeswoman for the group, said the “EPA did its best to inject politics into this good news by inflating concerns about groundwater, no doubt as a parting thank-you gift to the ‘Keep It In the Ground’ movement.”

Fracking opponents, meanwhile, cheered the new finding.

“The EPA has confirmed what we’ve known all along: fracking can and does contaminate drinking water,” Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food and Water Watch, said in a statement

“We are pleased that the agency has acted on the recommendations of its Science Advisory Board and chosen to be frank about the inherent harms and hazards of fracking.”

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