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Natural Gas: EPA Study Suggests Fracking Has Little Impact on Drinking Water

by Christina Nagy-McKenna, Enerdynamics Instructor,
and Bob Shively, Enerdynamics President and Lead Instructor

On June 3, 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its draft “Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources [1].” The key finding of the draft study is that there exists no evidence that hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" has extensive effects on U.S. drinking water supplies.


It should be noted that the study's results are still in draft form and are not yet official agency policy. Still, while the EPA found that ground and surface water has from time to time been contaminated by fracking-related mechanisms, thus far it believes that the number of such cases is very small.


The goal of hydraulic fracking is to increase the production of oil and gas from underground rock formations through the injection of highly pressurized fluids into the formations, which fractures them and releases the oil and gas. Possible impacts include excessive water consumption and a risk of water contamination. Both are important as fracking is very water intensive, with the average well requiring 1.5 million gallons. However, this number is somewhat misleading as it includes both horizontal and vertical wells. When only horizontal wells are considered, the number jumps to 4 million gallons.




In its study, the EPA looked closely at how water moved throughout the fracking process. When water is acquired for fracking, it competes with other uses such as municipal water systems and farming.





The EPA found that, depending on what part of the country the gas well is located, the water source may be surface water, ground water, or reused fracturing wastewater. In western states that have a more arid climate it is more likely the water used for fracking is from the surface and ground waters. In the East, producers usually use surface water. Reused water is found most often in Pennsylvania.


Producers need to be aware of the geologic conditions and climate in which they operate so as to avoid negatively impacting the drinking water. For example, if ground water is drawn down too aggressively, it can take more out of an aquifer than what it can naturally recharge. Also, using too much surface water may alter how a stream flows. In a few locales, competition for water resources may be important, but overall the impacts of water acquisition have not proven significant.


In looking at various stages of the fracking process, factors contributing to possible water contamination include:


  • chemicals that can spill and leech into the soil
  • wastewater if inadequately treated and discharged
  • the movement underground of fluids due to a production well


Controlling these potential hazards is important as the EPA found that between the years 2000 and 2013, close to 9.4 million people lived within a mile of a well that was being fracked. Also, drinking water sources for 6,800 public water systems serving 8.6 million people were also within a mile of a hydraulically fractured well during this time period. 


In preparing the report, the EPA did find some instances where impacts on drinking water occurred but said the number of instances is small relative to the number of fracked wells drilled in recent years. This led the EPA to state that it “did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.”


What are the next steps regarding the EPA’s report? The draft is out for public review and comment, and we expect many parties on both sides of the fracking debate will participate. In the meantime, the industry and those vested in production of inexpensive and plentiful natural gas will hold their collective breath in hopes the EPA does not substantially alter this draft report as it considers the public comments. 


Once the report is final, it should provide more knowledge to allow state agencies to develop effective regulation that allows fracking to continue while protecting water resources from potentially negative impacts.


Footnotes and references:


[1] “Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources,” United States Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Research and Development, Washington D.C., June 2015. 


“EPA Blesses Fracking,” Silverstein, Ken, Fortnightly’s Spark, 2015.


“EPA’s Fracking Finding May Prove a Boon for Industry,” Neuhauser, Alan, U.S. News and World Reports, June 5, 2015.




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