On Dec. 19, 2016, a mere 30 days before President Barack Obama will leave office, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally released its long-awaited report on fracking’s impact on drinking water. The report, titled Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas: Impacts from the Hydraulic Fracturing Water Cycle on Drinking Water Resources in the United States, was originally scheduled to be completed in five years and released in 2014, but the release was delayed for an additional two years.
An optimist might believe it sheer coincidence that this delay allowed the Obama administration to escape the Beltway after two terms without ever having to challenge the world’s most politically powerful industry over its most dangerous, controversial and profitable practices. Those whose view of politics skews more cynical will no doubt see the timing of the report’s release as well-planned political theater designed to help Obama and the Democrats avoid the wrath of the oil and gas industry during the 2016 election cycle, while metaphorically leaving a burning bag of dog doo on the porch of the White House as a gift to the incoming Trump administration.
Whatever your worldview, the report’s delay, the timing of its ultimate release and its contents speak volumes to the threats facing not only our drinking water supply but also our democracy at the hands of the oil and gas industry and a dysfunctional two-party political system.
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There are three very important time frames to remember when it comes to evaluating the risk posed to our drinking water supplies by oil and gas extraction techniques including fracking: March 2012, July 2012 and June 2013.
These are the periods wherein Obama’s EPA made its inexplicable decisions to halt and walk away from ongoing investigations into drinking water contamination presumed to have been caused by some aspect of the hydraulic fracturing cycle and/or possibly other shale oil and gas extraction techniques in Parker County, Texas, Dimock, Pennsylvania, and Pavillion, Wyoming, respectively.
In each case, at the time the investigation was abruptly terminated without a viable explanation for its stoppage, news reports noted that researchers on the ground still believed that fracking had contributed to the water contamination, which they saw as a health risk to people in those communities.
By abandoning these investigations, the EPA not only left vulnerable populations exposed to dangerous toxins, it also allowed the oil and gas industry to continue to falsely claim that fracking has never — not once in the history of the industry — been found to have contaminated drinking water supplies. This industry lie has been one of its most powerful political tools in its fight against fracking bans and moratoriums during the past three election cycles in Colorado and elsewhere.
And it’s a claim still being made with frequency by the industry along Colorado’s Front Range. A quick internet search finds a website with the header “Front Range News” and an article titled “Five Myths About Hydraulic Fracturing in Colorado.” Myth number 2 deals with water contamination and claims, “There has never been a case linking hydraulic fracturing to contaminated water.”
The website says it is “powered by Extraction Oil and Gas.” Extraction is the same company that has drilled many wells near homes within Greeley’s city limits and is currently embroiled in controversy in Broomfield where it has proposed drilling and fracking approximately 140 new wells close to and under several neighborhoods. As of this writing, Broomfield’s citizens are outraged and its City Council will be voting on a new short-term moratorium on oil and gas drilling sometime in February.
The EPA has long known the industry’s claim about never having contaminated drinking water to be false, despite its silence on the subject. In fact, the EPA first noted well water had been contaminated by fracking as far back as 1984, three and a half decades ago.
In the 1987 document wherein the EPA famously exempted virtually all oil and gas waste from the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) requirements, the agency acknowledged that a fracking incident three years earlier had contaminated well water on a West Virginia farm with fracking gel and other chemicals used in the process. The agency’s exemption was based on its assessment that there is so much waste generated by the industry that it simply can’t be cost effectively dealt with under RCRA, even though much of the waste is indeed hazardous, but that’s another story. This and other documents also note that there were other such incidents of drinking water contamination but they couldn’t be elaborated upon because the oil and gas industry had paid settlements in exchange for silence among the parties involved.
We now know that for decades the oil and gas industry has been paying off homeowners in exchange for their legally binding silence regarding drinking water contaminated by oil and gas extraction practices including contamination during the fracking cycle. These settlements have transpired even as the industry claims such contamination has never occurred. That is just one of the disturbing things the new EPA report has confirmed.
One of the values of this long-overdue report is that it examines fracking’s impact on drinking water throughout the entire hydraulic fracturing cycle, not just during the high-pressure-injection phase that occurs thousands of feet below the earth’s surface and out of sight. According to the report, the EPA looked at fracking “from water withdrawals to make hydraulic fracturing fluids, through the mixing and injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids in oil and gas production wells, to the collection and disposal or reuse of produced water.”
The report then describes the six primary ways fracking harms drinking water resources:
• “Water withdrawals for hydraulic fracturing in times or areas of low water availability, particularly in areas with limited or declining groundwater resources;
• Spills during the management of hydraulic fracturing fluids and chemicals or produced water that result in large volumes or high concentrations of chemicals reaching groundwater resources;
• Injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into wells with inadequate mechanical integrity, allowing gases or liquids to move to groundwater resources;
• Injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids directly into groundwater resources;
• Discharge of inadequately treated hydraulic fracturing wastewater to surface water resources; and
• Disposal or storage of hydraulic fracturing wastewater.”
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So is this just some sort of speculation on the part of the EPA? Nope.
According to the report, all of “the above conclusions are based on cases of identified impacts and other data, information, and analyses … Cases of impacts were identified for all stages of the hydraulic fracturing water cycle. Identified impacts generally occurred near hydraulically fractured oil and gas production wells and ranged in severity, from temporary changes in water quality to contamination that made private drinking water wells unusable.”
To put it another way, the report isn’t warning about something that could potentially happen some day. It’s reporting about drinking water contamination that has already occurred and is currently occurring.
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The EPA’s report is disturbing on several fronts, both environmentally and politically.
The confirmation that, despite the false claims of the oil and gas industry to the contrary, the hydraulic fracturing cycle has and continues to contaminate drinking water, ground water and surface water in a wide variety of ways is only the most obvious reason to be unnerved.
There have been numerous and sometimes massive spills of fracking fluid that have saturated soil and seeped into ground water or run directly into surface waters. While most spills are less than 1,000 gallons, some are far more devastating. In North Dakota, for example, the EPA found in 2015 alone there were “12 spills greater than 21,000 gallons (79,500 liters), five spills greater than 42,000 gallons (160,000 liters), and one spill of 2.9 million gallons (11 million liters).”
Well failure is another major cause for concern according to the report. Wells can fail under pressure during the fracking process, allowing fluids and/or methane to enter up-hole formations that contain drinking water. More often they fail from a variety of problems, including corroded casing and bad cement jobs.
What matters more than the technical aspects of how wells fail is that we understand they fail often and increasingly so with age. The industry’s own literature claims the majority of oil and gas wells will fail at some point during their lifespan. And when they fail, water and those who use it are often the casualties.
The EPA report noted a .06 catastrophic failure rate on the 17,948 Wattenburg Field wells drilled in Colorado between 1970 and 2013. According to the report, “A catastrophic failure was considered to have occurred when there was contamination of drinking water aquifers (i.e., the presence of thermogenic gas in a drinking water well) and evidence of a well defect such as exposed intermediate gas formations or casing leaks.”
What this means is that there have been more than 1,000 such catastrophic well failures in Colorado already in just the primary oil field that spans the Front Range, including Weld, Boulder, Broomfield, Larimer and Adams counties.
Then there’s the problems fracking in new wells can create in abandoned and/or plugged wells nearby — a threat with significant implications for Boulder County.
The EPA found that the cement used in the old wells is often deteriorated, which allows contamination to migrate into water-bearing formations by way of the old wellbores when the new wells are fracked under extreme pressure in proximity (1 to 1.5 miles) to the old wells.
One look at the maps showing historic and current oil and gas production in Boulder County makes it clear that the new wells the industry has drilled horizontally and fracked are in close proximity to many such old abandoned wells. And the areas of the County where the industry hopes to drill in the future are likewise pocked with many abandoned wells, some that were never even plugged.
The report also points out that disposing of produced water containing contamination, including remnants of fracking fluid, can cause ground water and drinking water contamination. Colorado recently relaxed its requirements on produced water disposal, allowing the industry to simply pour it onto the ground under the guise of dust suppression, claiming such disposal practices are beneficial to the state’s residents. The reality is that it simply saves the industry trouble and expense in disposing of its RCRA-exempted contamination.
All this while the oil and gas industry and its front groups like CRED and Vital for Colorado spend millions to falsify the industry’s track record in their efforts to convince us that fracking is not and has never been a threat to our drinking water supplies.
On the political front, the EPA’s report is just as disturbing as it is regarding the environment.
The report is chock-full of information about drinking water contamination in Pavillion, Wyoming, Dimock, Pennsylvania and Parker County, Texas, the three locations that the EPA mysteriously turned its back on in 2012 and 2013.
It’s unfair to simply think of these places as names on a map. I’ve met the people who live there. Louis and Donna Meeks, John Fenton, Ray Kemble — people whose lives have been destroyed by the oil and gas industry’s drinking water contamination. These are people with failing health, sores covering their bodies and loved ones bedridden as the result of what they will tell you is their losing battle with the oil and gas industry. And they will also tell you that the EPA shares blame for their troubles because it turned its back on them for political reasons even though it knew the truth years ago.
Obama’s recent farewell speech was an emotional moment of reflection for millions of Americans, and he has no doubt accomplished much that is to be commended. But history will view his environmental legacy as one long on broad promises and short on action, particularly when it came to the oil and gas industry.
He encouraged the global oil and gas shale boom, using the Secretary of State’s office to open fields around the world. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, he has allowed more drilling and fracking on public lands than any president in history.
And when it came to keeping the citizens of Pavillion, Dimock and Parker County safe from contamination, he allowed the research to be thrown into a drawer and not released until years later when he was leaving office and wouldn’t have to deal with the political fallout.
The half-decade of politically expedient delays on the EPA’s research proving that oil and gas extraction, including the hydraulic fracturing cycle, is contaminating our water supplies put us all at risk and severely harmed citizen efforts to pass bans and moratoriums to protect our communities from the harms of oil and gas extraction.
And now that the report has finally been released, it is being handed off to a new Trump EPA that will be led by a climate-change-denying, oil-and-gas-industry lackey from Oklahoma who will simply put it back in the drawer after somehow discrediting the research and likely firing everyone who was involved with its creation.
This will, of course, allow Democrats to point fingers at the Republicans and accuse them of harming the environment while ignoring the science.
But let us not forget that it was the Democrats who have sat on this vital information for years, turning one of the most critical reports in EPA and environmental history into little more than an opportunity for more political theater at the expense of the health of real families and the environment.
When the current administration decided to walk away from the three earlier studies on fracking’s impact on drinking water and to delay the release of this report until Obama’s last few days in office when it was too late to take any action, it proved a couple of things. First, that both political parties are fully under the control of the oil and gas industry. And second, we must look beyond politics to save our planet and protect ourselves and our communities from this dangerous polluting industry.