At long last, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the draft results of its five-year study on the relationship between hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," and drinking water.
The major conclusion? Hydraulic fracturing activities resulted in "impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells," but EPA "did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States."
The first part speaks for itself. Hydraulic fracturing activities have contaminated drinking water.
The second part requires a little more unpacking. The key phrase is, "did not find evidence."
That understated conclusion has major implications. Not finding evidence of impacts is not the same things as not finding impacts. To quote the old adage: Absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence.
In other words, just because EPA didn't observe impacts doesn't mean they aren't there. As the report states, the apparent lack of widespread impacts could legitimately "reflect a rarity of effects on drinking water resources," but it could also be due to "other limiting factors" - a.k.a. data gaps.
In fact, EPA found data gaps in every topic it researched, from lack of complete information on baseline water quality data, to the number of spills of fracking fluids and wastewater that occur each year, the composition of wastewater, the identities of fracking chemicals, the number and location of hydraulically fractured wells, and on and on.
This isn't a criticism of the study, it's simply a reality, and one that EPA did a great job of highlighting. And these data gaps - the lack of evidence - in fact made it impossible for EPA to figure out how often impacts occur. As clearly stated in the report:
"In particular, data limitations preclude a determination of the frequency of impacts with any certainty."
Again, EPA didn't find an absence of widespread or frequent impacts, they found an absence of evidence of widespread or frequent impacts - due, in part, to gaps in data. This is more than a trivial semantic difference, it's actually significant from a scientific perspective. Because the lack of evidence of impacts does not support the claim being made by some in industry and elsewhere that this finding means that fracking is safe. To the contrary, it means that we still don't have enough information to fully assess the risks.
If it turns out to be true that the impacts aren't widespread, that would be good news for most people living near oil and gas development. But not everyone. It wouldn't diminish the scientific finding that there ARE impacts and that those impacts can be significant and affect one of our most precious resources: our drinking water, and thereby human health. And it would still mean that more can and should be done to prevent those impacts.
Can the risks of fracking ever be reduced to zero? No.
Should we strive for that anyway? Yes.
Nobody should be celebrating EPA's finding that only some people's water was contaminated by fracking. It certainly won't provide any comfort to the communities whose water has been impacted.
Instead, operators and regulators - including EPA and states - should be using the results of this study to find ways to reduce the multitude of risks to drinking water from hydraulic fracturing that EPA identified. After all, EPA has a responsibility not just to study our drinking water, but also to protect it. In light of the findings of this study, the need for them to exercise that responsibility could not be more clear or urgent.
Stay tuned for my next blog, where I will delve even deeper into the EPA's findings.