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Just Ignore the local impacts

EPA's fracking report highlights known risks, but even more unknown dangers

by Miles Howe

Localized risks of fracking? Clear and present and lots of data gaps to boot. [Photo: M. Howe]
Localized risks of fracking? Clear and present and lots of data gaps to boot. [Photo: M. Howe]

FREDERICTON, NEW BRUNSWICK -- UNCEDED WOLUSTUK TERRITORY -- For several days now, unconventional gas extraction lobbyists and right-wing media (which appears to include the CBC) have collectively gushed praise over the findings of the United States of America's Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) report on the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water. The report, they claim, demonstrates that the process of hydraulic fracturing does not pose a widespread, national, risk to drinking water.

Full stop.

Gleaning this information from the EPA's report amounts to willful blindness as to what the report actually says, especially as it pertains to locally impacted communities. This message is dangerously misleading, but also carries the ignorant reader farther down the path of blind obedience to the word of governmental 'oversight' bodies who have time and again shown themselves to be little more than the rubber stamping arm of the natural gas extractive industry. It also risks stigmatizing local resistance in communities who face the very real, and acknowledged, threat of hydraulic fracturing, as being 'emotional' and 'ill-informed'.

EPA's complicity in the fracking story:

Readers may remember the efforts of EPA whistleblowers – career scientists like Weston Wilson – who first questioned the agency's methodology in originally coming to its 2004 conclusion that hydraulic fracturing posed “little or no threat” to drinking water. At the time, the links between the office of then vice-president Dick Cheney (who's Halliburton had developed the hydraulic fracturing technique) and the 2005 Energy Policy Act, which exempted the underground injection of fluids and propping agents, along with the storage of natural gas, from EPA regulations, were clearly exposed.

Famously, Wilson wrote:

“The EPA has conducted limited research reaching the unsupported conclusion that this industry practice needs no further study at this time. EPA decisions were supported by a Peer Review Panel; however five of the seven members of this panel appear to have conflicts-of-interest and may benefit from EPA's decision not to conduct further investigation or impose regulatory conditions.”

Thus did the EPA essentially wash the federal government's hands of hydraulic fracturing oversight, which began the still-current practice of handing regulatory enforcement and monitoring to ill-prepared, underfunded, and often corrupted state oversight bodies.

That the EPA cites a clear lack of evidence linking hydraulic fracturing to widespread water contamination is not surprising.

The evidence is simply not being gathered.

Lack of Data highlighted in 2015 report:

In claiming that there is no data to suggest that hydraulic fracturing leads to widespread water contamination, the EPA does, in the report, give a nod to the fact that this may be entirely related to the total lack of data on the subject.

As noted:

“This finding could reflect...insufficient pre- and post-fracturing data on the quality of drinking water resources; the paucity of long-term systematic studies; the presence of other sources of contamination precluding a definitive link between hydraulic fracturing activities and an impact; and the inaccessibility of some information on hydraulic fracturing activities and potential impacts.”

Without 'pre-fracked' baseline studies of water sources, without the federal funding or mandate to gather long-term data (remember, despite what industry will tell you, the fracking 'boom' is only a decade old), is it any wonder that the EPA can only conclude that there is no evidence to demonstrate that hydraulic fracturing leads to widespread water contamination? The better question, perhaps, is why the willful ignorance – and in some cases grandstanding – by so many mainstream media sources when reporting on the EPA's most recent findings.

The data there is – even that is questionable:

The EPA's recent report places a great reliance on data provided by 'FracFocus', a chemical disclosure registry that is co-managed by the 'Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission' (IOGCC). According to a 2010 article in ProPublica, numerous oil and gas industry lobbyists and executives are representatives at the IOGCC. Importantly, the IOGCC denied reporter Marie C. Baca's request for information on its various committees, where much of the group's decision-making takes place.

As Baca writes:

“Although the organization meets biannually, most of its activities -- conducting research, developing resolutions and communicating that information to public officials -- take place in small committee meetings throughout the year.”

State bodies, due to a lack of monitoring at the federal level, have become the last line of regulatory oversight. Unfortunately, time and again they have shown themselves to be underfunded and ill-equipped to deal with enforcing what regulations exist as it relates to the hydraulic fracturing industry. In some instances they have also shown themselves to be corrupted and co-opted.

For example, in Arkansas, up until 2011, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ), to whom above-ground oversight of the unconventional natural gas extraction industry falls, was so underfunded and understaffed that inspections of well pads were only conducted when the ADEQ received a complaint from an outside source.

What this means is that between 2004 and 2011, first-response monitoring of the above-ground impacts of hydraulic fracturing and gas exploitation in Arkansas, important stuff like illegal discharges of fracking waste into rivers and lakes, leaking holding ponds, surface water pollution, etcetera, was being left up to concerned private citizens and environmental groups. That, and of course the industry was expected to self-monitor.

A report prepared by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, in September of 2011, found that the ADEQ was only able to perform 538 inspections between 2006 and 2010, despite nearly 3,000 wells being drilled in that same time period. That's under 20% of all drilled wells that received an inspection. The APPP report also found that when the ADEQ did conduct well pad inspections, fifty four percent of the time companies were found to be out of compliance. What this means is that thousands of potential infractions have gone unmonitored.

The limits of the available data. And the dangers:

Potentially due to the fact that the EPA excused itself from strict federal oversight, there isn't really the data available to say whether hydraulic fracturing causes widespread contamination of water. On the other hand, the EPA's recent report is clear that where the data is available – at the localized level – serious issues of contamination do exist.

Water Demand:

In terms of water acquisition and use, the EPA notes that between 2011 and 2012, the hydraulic fracturing industry used 44 billion gallons of water per year. At a national level, the EPA notes that this represents less than one percent of annual water use. But there is no solace in this figure, if you happen to be among those who are directly impacted by the industry.

If you live within county borders where hydraulic fracturing is taking place, the report notes that the percentage of water demand from the industry is actually increasing. In 2011 and 2012, on average the hydraulic fracturing industry represented 10% of demand upon county water use, where reported to FracFocus. In 2010, the average water demand represented 6.5%. In one percent of the counties that reported to FracFocus, the hydraulic fracturing industry now represents over 50% of the total water demand. Likely, this is related to the general trend of an increase in the number of wells being hydraulically fractured; wells which are providing decreasing returns in terms of natural gas production.

The EPA excuses the hydraulic fracturing industry from directly causing droughts or water shortages, noting that there are generally several reasons that a stream or river will run dry. No doubt that the demands that the hydraulic fracturing industry places on water are not the only demands. But such a reductive argument is perhaps more suited to an introductory philosophy class, rather than a body claiming scientific authority.

Of chemicals and spills:

Sadly, the EPA notes that it could only gather information related to spills of hydraulic fracturing chemicals from two out of the dozens of states that hydraulically fracture. Any extrapolation of statistics coming from Pennsylvania and Colorado towards gaining a national-level understanding of chemical spills – despite all the other caveats related to state reporting – must certainly be taken with more than a grain of salt.

Data and literature reviews suggested chemical spills at anywhere between 0.4 and 12.2 out of every 100 wells drilled in Pennsylvania. This is a massive discrepancy in the available information. The EPA acknowledges that it has no idea if this spill rate is representative of the national average, but, if it is, it might represent between 100 and 3,700 fracking fluid spills per year nationally.

As for the chemicals themselves, the EPA managed to identify 1,076 chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process. Again, using minimal available data, the EPA estimates that 9,100 gallons of chemicals are injected per well. Also troubling, measured or estimated physicochemical data was only available for 453 of the 1,076 chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process. That's only 42% of the chemicals used. Many of the 453 chemicals fully dissolve in water, but few volatilize, meaning that once they're in water, they stay there.

Of these chemicals, the EPA notes that the majority associate strongly with soils and organic compounds, suggesting that spills can have long-term interactions and contaminations, even if they don't manage to reach surface or groundwater sources.

So, spills indeed occur in some alarmingly unknown degree of frequency. When they do occur, they certainly have the possibility of long-term contamination. But, these fall under the purview of 'local incidents', and thus the mainstream media croons.

The EPA notes that oral reference values and oral slope values – the data sets by which science measures the impacts of these chemicals upon us pesky humans – were not available for the majority of these chemicals. In this, at least, the EPA acknowledged a “significant data gap”.

The report concedes:

“Of the chemicals that had values available, the health endpoints associated with those values include the potential for carcinogenesis, immune system effects, changes in body weight, changes in blood chemistry, cardiotoxicity, neurotoxicity, liver and kidney toxicity, and reproductive and developmental toxicity.”

More troubling still, the report notes that understanding the impacts of exposure to these chemicals – again, a local issue – would be made far easier if only hydraulic fracturing companies were to fully disclose the chemical composition of their fracking mixtures. Only a small number of the 1,076 chemicals will be used at any given well site, but disclosure per well is not necessarily forthcoming. Even if it were, the majority of the possible chemicals to be used do not have measured or physicochemical data associated with them. Of the 453 known chemicals, the majority have no oral reference or oral slope values.

So basically, there's a decent degree of known localized danger. There's also an acknowledged, greater, degree, of unknown danger.

What goes on underfoot:

The report notes that faulty well casements, in terms of properly cementing transition zones where natural gas will pass through water tables, have been the cause of numerous examples of gas migration into water tables. The EPA notes that the greatest danger of current or future water contamination is in areas where pockets of trapped gas exist in the same relative strata as water tables. In these instances, which the EPA notes generally occur in the western areas of the United States, the introduction of hydraulic fracturing chemicals into water tables can and does occur. The report also notes that variables, such as a high degree of concentration of hydraulically fractured wells in one area, as well as the existence of older wells, such as drinking water wells, can and does increase the opportunity for gas and hydraulic fracturing fluid to migrate into water tables.

But again, this is localized.

What comes back up:

Flowback and 'produced' water is also acknowledged by the EPA's report as a possible source of localized contamination. Again, however, national statistics can only be extrapolated from data gathered from Pennsylvania and Colorado, meaning that this is one more vaguely understood, but real, localized risk.

Again, as with the risks associated with hydraulic fracturing chemical spills, the EPA operates in a great degree of national ignorance in relation to 'produced' water spills. When the type and quantity of hydraulic fracturing chemicals injected into a well have so many unknowns attached to them, so too does the chemical consistency of the 'produced' water that either comes rushing back up the well bore, or escapes into the earth. All the same dangers – known and unknown – apply to 'produced' water as they do to hydraulic fracturing chemicals.

As for water composition, the EPA acknowledges that 'produced' water will be impacted by the formation into which they are injected. In some cases, the drilled formation will include Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials, such as Uranium and Radon. This, notes the EPA, is not within the mandate of the report, and is thusly ignored as a potential health impact.

The EPA notes that spills of produced waters – although how many is not known - can and do reach local bodies of water, posing both known and unknown risks.

Miles Howe is the author of 'Debriefing Elsipogtog - The Anatomy of a Struggle'. Learn more here.

You can follow Miles on twitter @MilesHowe


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Comments

Kudos

Excellent expose of the bogus reporting on what the EPA study does and does not say.  I have heard this study mentioned in several CBC radio news reports and, just like the article linked to here,  they all take the claims at face value with no context and no background, thus parrotting the corporate/government spin and paving the way for lifting moratoria and continuing with business as usual .  Once again Miles Howe and the HMC put the CBC to shame with this important analysis. No wonder they felt compelled to declare Howe "not a journalist".     

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