Fracking Reporting a Widespread Problem?

06/05/2015 05:00 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2016

The EPA released a draft report June 4 on fracking and water use and contamination that has already generated some screaming headlines. "No Widespread Problem with Fracking Water, EPA says!" If you believe that, I'll alert a couple of companies who will be happy to drill in your backyard.

Let's be clear. The EPA is doing its job. The Congress asked for a report on the effects of fracking on water and they got it. Case closed, right? The problems with this approach are so numerous as to be called widespread.

First, the headlines. The EPA is an official source and assumed in the media narrative to be friendly to, if not in league with, environmentalists. Some folks even believe they will seize your land if it has puddles on it (wetlands) or a snail darter or two. And fracking is a major bugaboo for their allies in the backpacking and demonstrating set.

Headlines grab readers, bizarre or unexpected twists are news, and having the EPA seem to support fracking is surprising and controversial. Hence, your Uncle Joe, a Fox News fan, and maybe even Aunt Sarah, an NPR listener, will soon be telling you that they've heard that fracking is OK.

Then there is that slippery word, widespread. The EPA was tasked to see if fracking was using up or contaminating water nationwide. Fracking has gone on in 25 states between 1990-2013, and the EPA has analyzed 20 states with fracking, so it can seem widespread. But only a few states have substantial fracking, with Texas ahead by far with about half of all fracking wells. And all of the nation's fracking occurs in just 400 counties. In Colorado, a distant second to Texas in fracking, 85% of the wells are in just two counties. And liberally defined, water systems within range of potential fracking contamination serve only 9.6 million Americans.

The EPA, in its careful scientific and bureaucratic language, says that fracking is really a localized problem. But they were asked to talk about the whole nation. So of course fracking and fracking water problems are not widespread, given the question EPA was required to answer.

But how about water problems in those local areas were fracking is going on? Stay with me, even if this is where the reporters and Uncle Joe and Aunt Sarah tune out. The EPA report is based on available, peer-reviewed studies of water and fracking. Sounds good, sounds scientific. The problem here is that hydraulic fracturing is a relatively new process and there just aren't that many decent scientific studies and of those a number are done by industry. The EPA puts a major disclaimer in the fine print that never reaches the headlines.

Their findings, EPA says "Could reflect a rarity of effects on drinking water resources..." But, read on. The EPA then says the low number of water problems, "may also be due to other limiting factors... 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."

Buried in the EPA report, you will discover many problems. Fracking wells, for instance, use about 4 billion gallons of fresh water a year. Only about 5% of fracking water is re-used waste water. But on a national scale fracking sucks up only about 1% of water used, so no big problem. And yes, there has been water contamination from leaks, spills and such, but not enough peer-reviewed studies yet to say how serious this is. And in this report, the EPA was not asked to look at health effects.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the EPA study, and hence, a slew of misleading headlines, is that the study says flat out that it does not look at any effects of fracking water on agriculture or industry; it is not looking in this study at other fracking issues such as earthquakes or global climate change. And finally that it does not look at the complete process of gas and oil extraction. Just water used for drilling wells.

No one would print a headline that read "EPA says nation needs more comprehensive studies to reveal full fracking dangers" Meanwhile, reports from farmers, families, workers, or environmentalists of contamination, illnesses, and general despoliation of the areas in which fracking does go on are simply "anecdotal." Now that is a widespread problem.