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In 2010, Congress commissioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to study the impact of fracking on drinking water. The U.S. EPA released its long-awaited final draft of its report today, assessing how fracking for oil and gas can impact access to safe drinking water. The report refuted the conclusion arrived at by the U.S. EPA’s 2004 study that fracking poses no threat to drinking water, a conclusion used to exempt the fracking process from the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Fracking can impact water use and quality at five stages of the operation. Image credit: US EPA
The stages of the hydraulic fracturing water cycle. Shown here is a generalized landscape depicting the activities of the hydraulic fracturing water cycle and their relationship to each other, as well as their relationship to drinking water resources. Image credit: US EPA

The report found that fracking for shale oil and gas has not led to “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States,” but said fracking could contaminate drinking water under certain conditions, such as when fluids used in the process leaked into the water table, and found isolated cases of water contamination.

The report looked at water use at five stages of the water-intensive process: use of the available water supply for fracking; the mixing of chemicals with water to create fracking fluid; the flowback of the fluid after it has been injected underground to fracture shale deposits to release oil or gas; treatment of the wastewater byproduct of fracking; and the injection wells frequently used to dispose of fracking wastewater when the process is complete.

“Hydraulic fracturing in combination with advanced directional drilling techniques has made it possible to economically extract oil and gas from unconventional resources, such as shale, tight formations and coalbeds,” the report says. “The growth in domestic oil and gas exploration and production made possible by the expanded use of hydraulic fracturing, has raised concerns about its potential for impacts to human health and the environment. Specific concerns have been raised by the public about the effects of hydraulic fracturing on the quality and quantity of drinking water resources.”

It noted the reason for that concern: “Millions of people live in areas where their drinking water resources are located near hydraulically fractured wells. While most hydraulic fracturing activity from 2000 to 2013 did not occur in close proximity to public water supplies, a sizeable number of hydraulically fractured wells (21,900) were located within 1 mile of at least one PWS source (e.g., infiltration galleries, intakes, reservoirs, springs and ground water wells). Approximately 6,800 sources of drinking water for public water systems, serving more than 8.6 million people year-round, were located within 1 mile of at least one hydraulically fractured well. An additional 3.6 million people obtain drinking water from private water systems.”

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