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Five Years for an EPA Fracking Study Confusing the Matter

PennFuture - Tom ShepstoneTom Shepstone
Natural Gas NOW


If proof is needed the Federal government is inept and incapable of doing much of anything other mucking everything up, it is the EPA fracking study.

Five years were spent to produce an EPA fracking study that not only did nothing much, but managed to confuse matters even more than they were when it began. The only thing good that came out of the draft was a wishy-washy statement about the lack of “widespread, systemic impacts” on ground water from hydraulic fracturing and some nice debunking of Tony Ingraffea and company.

The final version, although it left all the debunking intact (see this excellent rundown from Energy In Depth), took out the statement, exacerbating the confusion produced by the draft. Now, even generally pro-gas publications are contributing to it, demonstrating the entire exercise was one colossal waste of time and money as anyone familiar with the ways of government could have predicted.

What I’m referring to is a Houston Chronicle article from last week that properly took the EPA to task for spending “five years studying fracking, only to report there isn’t enough data.” I loved the headline but the opening paragraphs are where things begin to go wrong (emphasis added).

The EPA spent five years studying the impact of hydraulic fracturing on U.S. water supplies, but its conclusions — or rather lack of them — may well intensify the battle over the drilling technology that led to a boom in domestic oil production and reshaped global energy markets and politics. Already, some politicians and industry groups have proclaimed that the 1,200-odd page report shows that fracking is safe, while environmentalists argue that EPA was prevented by the industry from gathering information that might have shown the practice of injecting millions of gallons of high-pressure, chemical-laced water underground is doing more damage than oil and gas companies will admit.

The EPA found some cases of contamination, but concluded there’s not enough data to say whether the drilling technique poses a broad threat to water supplies. This inconclusive finding, EPA said, was “a strong, clear representation of the science that exists on the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water resources.”

Reading these paragraphs leads one to the logical conclusion the study was about whether “the practice of injecting millions of gallons of high-pressure, chemical-laced water underground” was contaminating drinking water. Leaving aside the “chemical-laced” hype, that was what it was supposed to be about. During the course of the study, though, EPA, was lured into the Gasland lie that drilling is fracking, fracking is drilling and anything connected with either is also fracking. It was a fatal mistake, also made by the writer of the Houston Chronicle article.

EPA Fracking Study

There’s nothing in the EPA report to suggest any impact on drinking water aquifers from the hydraulic fracturing process. The few instances of contamination that have happened have related to drilling that is separate and distinct from hydraulic fracturing. The latter often occurs long after a well is drilled, in fact, and there are no proven cases of that rock fracturing process a mile below the water table to release gas ruining a drinking water supply. It hasn’t happened despite huge numbers of hydraulic fracturing operations over several decades.

There are instances, though, of methane migration from drilling gas, geothermal and water wells. They are very infrequent and becoming less of an issue every day. It was to these the EPA draft report referred in saying there was no “widespread, systemic impacts” on ground water, not hydraulic fracturing per se, which is always presented as the ominous threat. It was about these instances that the debate over language occurred. The EPA, of course, caved, but that was to be expected from a bureaucracy where the objective is always to muddle through.

The EPA, in fact, muddled so much that the public is more confused than ever. The Houston Chronicle article illustrates the net result when it, twice in the opening paragraphs of the story, called fracking a “drilling” process. It is not. It follows drilling and the methane migration issues sometimes connected with drilling have no connection with hydraulic fracturing other than the fact they both occur at the same location. It’s liking saying roofing is plumbing because both happened in building the same house. Because you might fall off the roof and break your leg when installing it, doesn’t make plumbing inherently dangerous. It doesn’t even make roofing inherently dangerous if proper precautions are taken.

The Houston Chronicle, though, while doing a decent and fair job reporting on the controversy over the EPA fracking study, blithely ignores this critical distinction. It refers to fracking as a drilling technique yet a third time later on in the story. It even cites the Gasland flaming faucet as if it had anything whatsoever to do with hydraulic fracturing. How many times do we have to prove that flaming faucets are the result of methane migration and not “chemical-laced” hydraulic fracturing?


Frankly, it’s maddening that otherwise intelligent people fail to make these distinctions, which would allow reasonable discussions to occur about managing the risks of “natural gas development.” Just as “home construction” includes both roofing and plumbing, this term encompasses both drilling and fracking, as well as other activity. The risks of natural gas development as a whole are very low, and extremely low to the point of almost being non-existent with hydraulic fracturing.

Still, we can always improve. That should be the goal. What happened with the EPA, though, and what routinely happens in fractivist interpretation of events is a deliberate distortion of the facts to confuse matters. When reporters buy into such faulty premises they do the same. Is it too much to ask to get it correct and have a real discussion?

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