The EPA's study tells us nothing new about fracking in America

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a new report Thursday saying hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas in the U.S. has impacted some people's drinking water, but that based on available data, the problem isn't widespread.

This tells us nothing new.

Widely publicized studies have already suggested that fracking activity—whether through fracking itself, busted gas wells, or leaky storage tanks— has impacted groundwater in Pennsylvania, Wyoming, and Texas.


They have also shown that these cases seem to be relatively rare, but that more data is needed to make a definitive conclusion.

That is exactly what the EPA said Thursday: "Data limitations preclude a determination of the frequency of impacts with any certainty," the agency says.


Rob Jackson, earth sciences professor at Stanford, is one of the few scientists who has studied fracking's impact. He said the new EPA study was "a good summary" but a "missed opportunity."

"I think their overarching conclusion that evidence for no widespread groundwater contamination is correct, I just don’t know how they really know," he told Fusion. "We don’t know much more about that topic than we did before the study came out."


He noted the agency performed no new studies that measured groundwater before and after fracking began, and instead relied on retrospective reports that only took measurements after fracking had occurred.

In its report, the agency also notes the lack of data available for the chemicals used in fracking: 87 percent of the chemicals the agency identified lacked toxicity data, and that half lacked any chemical property data whatsoever. And 36 percent of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluids lacked data covering their nationwide frequency of use.


Jackson says politics have held back making more resources available for new and better data.

"I think there’s a disconnect between EPA [headquarters] in Washington D.C., and the EPA scientists out in the field," he said. "Repeatedly in EPA investigations, the field scientists have wanted to do additional measurements, and repeatedly the national office has killed those investigations."


Since taking office, President Barack Obama has been largely silent on looking further into fracking's potential environmental impact, instead allowing the country's shale oil and gas boom to speak for his administration's policy on the issue. As a result, the only thing that has slowed production down has been plummeting prices, though even that has only made a marginal dent in production.


"The federal government doesn't seem to want to look to deeply into the issue," Jackson said.

The energy industry has hailed the report.

“After more than five years and millions of dollars, the evidence gathered by EPA confirms what the agency has already acknowledged and what the oil and gas industry has known,” Erik Milito, director of upstream operations at the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement to The Hill. “Hydraulic fracturing is being done safely under the strong environmental stewardship of state regulators and industry best practices."


Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.