Yesterday, the U.S. EPA announced that they will spend more than $1.9 million to study the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on water quality and public health. EPA did a similar study in 2004 which concluded not only that fracking constitutes no risk to drinking water, but that no further study of the issue should be conducted.
So why is EPA conducting this new study anyway? Let me count the ways (after the jump):
Although hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”) was common (over 90% of gas wells drilled were fracked) in 2004, the development of horizontal fracking has opened shale gas deposits around the country. Consequently, U.S. natural gas reserves have increased, and the number of wells drilled is increasing.
If the 2004 study got it right — that fracking doesn't threaten drinking water — then increased gas reserves would be good news; other domestic fossil fuel sources are on the decline. But the history of gas extraction and processing is not a responsible one. And in just one shale gas play — the Marcellus Shale — the drinking water of tens of millions of Americans could be affected. So it's increasingly important that we know if the 2004 study got it right.
There's ample reason to believe the 2004 study got it wrong. EPA's own staff called the study “scientifically unsound”. And in EARTHWORKS' Oil & Gas Accountability Project's comprehensive analysis of the EPA study Our Drinking Water at Risk: What EPA and the Oil and Gas Industry Don't Want Us to Know About Hydraulic Fracturing, we reported that EPA removed information from earlier drafts that suggested unregulated fracturing poses a threat to human health, and that the Agency did not include information that suggests fracturing fluids may pose a threat to drinking water long after drilling operations are completed.
True scientists are loath to try to claim the “final word” in a field of study — especially in a field like hydrogeology, where science's knowledge of the systems involved is imperfect at best.
Perhaps the most significant bit of evidence that the 2004 EPA study was more a political document intended as a “get-out-of-enforcement-free-card” for the drilling industry, and less as a serious scientific study, was that it tried to forestall future study of fracking's impacts. That's the act of a party with vested interests in a policy decision, not a scientist.
- EPA launches national study of hydraulic fracturing, Propublica
- EPA initiates hydraulic fracturing study, EPA press release
- 2004 EPA study on risks of hydraulic fracturing
- EARTHWORKS response to 2004 EPA study: Our Drinking Water at Risk – what the EPA and the oil & gas industry don't want us to know about hydraulic fracturing
- EPA whistleblower letter to the Colorado Congressional delegation uncovering political influence in the 2004 EPA report