Wastewater quantities from oil production in the western United States (billions of gallons per year). Texas produces the largest quantity, estimated to be more than 77 trillion gallons per year. Graphic: EPA / Guerra, et al., 2011

By Sharon Kelly
25 June 2015

(DeSmog) – When EPA’s long-awaited draft assessment on fracking and drinking water supplies was released, the oil and gas industry triumphantly focused on a headline-making sentence: “We did not find evidence of widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.”

But for fracking’s backers, a sense of victory may prove to be fleeting.

EPA’s draft assessment made one thing clear: fracking has repeatedly contaminated drinking water supplies (a fact that the industry has long aggressively denied).

Indeed, the federal government’s recognition that fracking can contaminate drinking water supplies may prove to have opened the floodgates, especially since EPA called attention to major gaps in the official record, due in part to gag orders for landowners who settle contamination claims and in part because there simply hasn’t been enough testing to know how widespread problems have become.

And although it’s been less than a month since EPA’s draft assessment was released, the evidence on fracking’s impacts has continued to roll in.

A study in Texas’ Barnett shale found high levels of pollutants – volatile organic compounds, heavy metals, and known carcinogens – in many people’s drinking water, based on testing from over 500 water wells. The contaminants found were associated with the shale drilling industry, but the researchers cautioned it was too soon to say whether the industry actually caused the contamination.

Annual average hydraulic fracturing water consumption in the U.S. in 2011 and 2012, compared to total annual water consumption in 2010, by county, expressed as a percentage. The highest consumption percentages in are McMullen county, Texas (350.4 percent), Karnes County, Texas (120.1 percent), Susquehanna county, Pennsylvania (123.4 percent), and Van Buren county, Arkansas (168.8 percent). Graphic: EPA

But the association was strong, the researchers said. “In the counties where there is more unconventional oil and gas development, the chemicals are worse,” lead researcher Zachariah Hildenbrand told Inside Climate News. “They're in water in higher concentrations and more prevalent among the wells. As you get away from the drilling, water quality gets better. There's no doubt about it.”

Those who might have hoped that EPA’s national study would help resolve questions swirling around fracking were largely disappointed, saying that EPA’s new draft assessment is largely a review of the current literature. EPA also heavily relied on data that was self-reported by drillers to FracFocus or to various states, leaving open questions about whether the accident rates they found are in fact under-stated.

Historically, the executive summary from EPA’s assessments on the oil and gas industry has provided a much rosier picture than the details included in the body of the report. And a close look at EPA’s new draft assessment reveals some striking results that haven't made headlines. [more]

EPA's New Fracking Study: A Close Look at the Numbers Buried in the Fine Print

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