Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

The oil and gas industry has long claimed that there is no evidence that hydraulic fracturing has contaminated drinking water. But a new, major Environmental Protection Agency assessment has determined that fracking and another widely used drilling technique called horizontal drilling have the potential to contaminate drinking water.

The study also identified the greatest risks to drinking water, including spills, water withdrawals, wastewater releases and migration of gas and oil underground.

The nearly 1,000-page EPA study—a draft awaiting public comment and scientific review—found no evidence that “widespread” pollution of drinking water has occurred from these drilling techniques, which have driven a renaissance of the U.S. oil and gas industries over recent years. The number of known cases of well contamination and other impacts to drinking water sources was small compared to the estimated 25,000 to 30,000 new wells that were drilled and hydraulically fractured between 2011 and 2014, and the many more older wells that also were fracked, the study states.

Industry groups say this conclusion confirms the safety of their operations. But the EPA study concedes that a lack of sufficient scientific research may explain why the agency failed to find widespread impacts.

“That means they don’t know how often these things occur,” said Rob Jackson, a Stanford University environmental science professor.

Even after several years of work, the federal EPA failed to answer questions about the impacts of new drilling techniques that caused panic in communities across the country.

When the EPA launched its study of hydraulic fracturing and drinking water in 2011, scientists and environmental advocates expected it would fill in the knowledge gaps.

“This was supposed to be their job,” said Jackson, who is a leading researcher on the issue. “My frustration with the report is they left the difficult stuff out. They didn’t sink their teeth into the meat of this issue, into the controversial parts of this issue. That’s what we hoped EPA would do. Who else has the resource to do it?”

The study is less conclusive than originally envisioned, in part because the EPA failed to reach agreement with industry to do the kinds of studies scientists and the federal government believe are necessary. These studies would test drinking water sources before and after companies hydraulically fracture wells nearby. The EPA’s new assessment repeatedly cites the need for such studies.

Along the way, other significant efforts by the EPA to seek answers got derailed. The EPA investigated a possible case of well contamination in Pavillion, Wyo. But as reported, after EPA’s original findings linked hydraulic fracturing to water contamination, industry interests challenged agency scientists’ methodology and, in 2013, the agency abruptly dropped its research. The EPA backed out of investigations in Texas and Pennsylvania as well.

Still, the EPA’s new assessment, which draws from hundreds of reports and data sources, does have merit in pinpointing the riskiest steps for drinking water in modern drilling and production processes:

When companies withdraw large quantities of fresh water for hydraulic fracturing during times or in areas with low water availability.

When companies spill hydraulic fracturing fluids and produced water. (In Colorado, the state with the second-most wells hydraulically fractured over the period the EPA studied, the spill rate was one every 100 wells.)

When companies fracture directly into underground drinking water resources.

When liquids and gases migrate below ground. (This can be caused by intense pressures used in hydraulic fracturing, poorly constructed wells, or when the casing or cement used in wells degrade.)

When companies fail to adequately treat or properly discharge of wastewater, including when, as reported, they release that wastewater directly onto the land or into streams.

These weaknesses were illuminated by retrospective studies the EPA conducted that examined suspected contamination of drinking water from hydraulic fracturing in five locations including the Colorado’s Raton Basin and North Dakota’s Bakken Shale.

In Killdeer, North Dakota, a blowout during the hydraulic fracturing of an oil well in 2010 caused the release of fracking fluids. Drinking water wells did not show signs of contamination, but two monitoring wells found both brine and tert-butyl alcohol in the Killdeer aquifer. An EPA analysis determined the only possible source of this contamination was the 2010 blowout.

The EPA failed to definitively link contamination to hydraulic fracturing in other cases. For instance, people in Colorado’s Las Animas and Huerfano counties had complained about a change of appearance, odor and taste of water from their wells. The EPA study showed levels of dissolved methane in domestic wells that were consistent with natural background levels in the area. However, in one sampling area, two years after hydraulic fracturing, gas migrated into a shallow aquifer used for drinking water. The EPA and other researchers have been unable to prove definitively that the gas migrated because of the hydraulic fracturing and not because of natural causes.

The new assessment repeatedly stressed how holes in research and data often make it difficult to make definitive conclusions. For example, the EPA analyzed 151 spills of hydraulic fracturing fluid in 11 states and found that the most common cause was equipment failure, particularly the failure of valves and blowout preventers, devices intended to prevent uncontrolled releases of oil and gas. However, EPA stressed data was lacking to analyze spills. For instance, only two states, Colorado and Pennsylvania, provided statistics on spill frequency.

Other gaps noted in the EPA report included the dearth of science on the fate of the vast quantities of fracking fluids that don’t flow back to the surface, and the lack of data on how much fracking takes place in formations that also contain drinking water.

Congress requested the assessment in response to communities’ concerns and questions about the safety of the industry. The EPA estimates that public drinking-water systems that serve more than 8.6 million people were located within a mile of at least one well hydraulically fractured in 2013 alone. That doesn’t include the many private wells located near such well sites.

Congressional Republicans said the study affirms that the industry needs no additional federal regulation.

“We all want clean water, and we all want affordable energy, and today, the administration confirmed we can have both,” said Fred Upton, R-Michigan, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “The (Obama) administration should now reconsider the burdensome regulations it intends to place on hydraulic fracturing on federal lands, and should certainly refrain from any notion of broader federal involvement in an issue that states and communities are safely managing.”

But Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, took away another message: “Irresponsible oil and gas development puts water quality at risk for millions of Americans, and no amount of spin can change that.”

Environmental groups and scientists stressed that the report underscores how many questions remain. “We look at this report as very much the beginning of a process to understand what the impacts of unconventional oil and gas are to the water cycle,” said Mark Brownstein, of the Environmental Defense Fund.

EPA’s assessment is open for public comment while the document undergoes review by the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board, which plans public teleconferences and meetings in September and October.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

Since 1872, mining interests have made billions of dollars by removing and selling valuable minerals from our public lands without having to pay a cent to the American taxpayer. This is one of the biggest budget loopholes of the modern economy, and it needs to change—especially now—as Congress tries to address the deficit and balance budgets.

Blame this bizarre omission of royalties on the 1872 Mining Law, which encouraged Westward expansion by allowing prospectors to stake claims on public lands and freely remove “hardrock” minerals like gold, silver, copper and uranium. This saloon-era handout—established more than 140 years ago—continues unchanged to this day. Mining companies still receive these precious metals and minerals for free.

Today, some of the world’s biggest companies make a mint by mining our metals, selling them to the highest bidder, keeping all the profits and often sticking taxpayers with a costly cleanup bill. We’re left with a legacy of abandoned and contaminated mines on public lands that leak into streams and aquifers—lands that should be managed for the benefit of the American people.

Even as these giveaways continue, funding for national parks and other public facilities keep getting tighter. Employees’ hours are being reduced; cleanup crews are scarce; and trails are going untended and falling into ruin. Even a small royalty could rejuvenate our public-lands system, help clean up abandoned mines and mine waste, and put people back to work. Why should companies get a free ride while the national budget is slashed and parks close for lack of funds? With prices for gold, silver and other minerals at near-record highs, requiring companies to pay a royalty for public resources is simply good policy.

In 2011, we requested a Government Accountability Office investigation of this issue. The results, published this past November, were striking: The GAO found that we have no estimate at all of the value of the hardrock resources extracted from federal property. Not only are we giving public resources away for free; we don’t even know what’s being taken or the value of what we’re giving away.

According to a 2012 Bureau of Land Management report, in California alone, there are 20,200 mining claims, 215,000 ounces of gold, and 35,000 ounces of silver produced annually on BLM land.

The Department of the Interior, using estimates and partial information, put a ballpark figure of $6.4 billion on the value of hardrock minerals extracted from federal land in 2011. If taxpayers received an 8 percent royalty on $6.4 billion, that would mean more than $500 million a year we could put back into managing our public lands and reducing our national debt.

For decades, Congress has tried to rally sufficient support for hardrock mining law reform. Disputes about what royalty rate to charge, how to calculate company profits, and what benefits would go to local mining communities have managed to stall decades of reform efforts. While full reform has not been successful so far, progress has been made.

In the 1990s, both the House and Senate implemented a moratorium on the patenting of federal land for hardrock mineral development. As recently as 2008, the House passed a measure that would have protected special landscapes and charged a royalty of up to 8 percent. As co-sponsors of this legislation, we were frustrated to see the bill die in the Senate.

Now more than ever, the case for reform is clear, and we appreciate the support we’ve received from President Obama’s administration. As our nation works to address the deficit in the months ahead, we can no longer allow federal giveaways of our natural resources to continue without any compensation to the taxpayers who own those resources. The president proposed hardrock mining reform measures in each of his past two budgets, and we hope to see this repeated in his fiscal year 2014 request due this month.

But the only way mining reform will happen is if the public becomes aware of its importance. Nothing in Congress happens in a vacuum. That’s why we’re highlighting this issue now, before budget negotiations get too intense.

In 1872, Congress made national expansion the country’s top priority, and we spent the next century growing westward. That phase of American history ended a long time ago, but our mining law never caught up to the realities of today. It is long overdue for Congress and the administration to act––to finally demand, and get, a fair price for the public’s hardrock minerals.

The writers are contributors to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. Arizona Democratic Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva is the ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulations; Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico sits on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

Published in Community Voices