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EPA Study On Fracking Vindicates Environmental Groups

The Environmental Protection Agency released a final draft of a six-year study on the impact of fracking on drinking water.

The study affirms the scientific reality that fracking contaminates water, and remarkably, the report appears to be mostly free of fossil fuel industry influence that was apparent in an earlier draft of the study.

Environmental groups cheered the study for putting to rest the lie that fracking does not significantly pollute water supplies.

Greenpeace spokesperson Jesse Coleman reacted, “The report only confirms what too many Americans already know from personal experience: That fracking poisons our water and sickens our communities. The final publication of this report, long delayed, is a significant win for the dedicated people who fought to keep this process honest.”

“We’ve known for years that fracking and other oil and gas activities are a threat to drinking water,” said John Noel, coordinator for Clean Water Action’s national oil and gas campaigns. “The final study discards the industry talking points that ignore the fact that fracking has the potential to contaminate water during every step of the process—from water acquisition through disposal.”

Lena Moffitt, director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign, declared, “For far too long, communities around the country have faced the daily threat of contaminated water, earthquakes, and an uncertain future due to fracking, all while oil and gas companies peddled the false claim that the process was safe. Today’s report ends this charade. No longer will families be told a lie as their health and safety are threatened.”

However, Moffitt acknowledged the incoming administration appointed by President Donald Trump probably will expand fracking and disregard the science that shows this process can have severe impacts on communities.

The American Petroleum Institute, the trade association which represents all facets of the oil and natural gas industry, blasted the study and accused the EPA of abandoning science. It was a stark admission that in the end the industry failed to unduly influence the final version of the study.

In the executive summary of the study [PDF], the EPA acknowledges that contamination is possible at essentially all stages of the process. Spills can occur “during the management of hydraulic fracturing fluids and chemicals or produced water that result in large volumes or high concentrations of chemicals reaching groundwater resources.”

When hydraulic fracturing fluids are injected into wells with “inadequate mechanical integrity,” gases or liquids can move to groundwater. The injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids directly into groundwater resources can have a polluting impact. The discharge of wastewater into surface water and the disposal or storage of wastewater in “unlined pits” can also result in contamination of groundwater.

Marketplace and APM Reports obtained documents showing the EPA downplayed the risk of contamination from fracking and made eleventh hour changes in 2015.

“In the six weeks before the study’s public release, officials inserted a key phrase into the executive summary that said researchers did not find evidence of ‘widespread systemic impacts’ of fracking by the oil and gas industry on the nation’s drinking water,” according to journalists Scott Tong and Tom Scheck.

A news release written to accompany the draft study on June 3, 2015, initially contained a line indicating “potential vulnerabilities” to drinking water.” However, the final release stated, “Assessment shows hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources and identifies important vulnerabilities to drinking water resources.” Deputy EPA administrator Tom Burke emphasized the lack of evidence of “widespread, systemic impacts” on a conference call with reporters.

As Tong and Scheck pointed out, the EPA identified “more than two dozen instances in which hydraulic fracturing had an impact on water sources.” It also found “hundreds of other spills, many of which reached soil and water.”

Environmental groups regarded the draft study’s disinformation as “findings” that were designed to appease the oil and gas industry, which was concerned about a study that might impact their corporate profits.

Last year, the EPA was challenged over its failure to regulate fracking and address earthquakes in states like Ohio and Oklahoma that were linked to “underground injection wells.” They also called for “tougher rules to stop disposal of fracking waste in open-air pits” or municipal landfills.

Pressure from activists certainly played a role in ensuring the final study had language that would challenge the oil and gas industry’s environmentally destructive practices.

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This victory for the climate movement comes a little more than a week after the Army Corps of Engineers refused to grant an easement for Energy Transfer Partners’s Dakota Access Pipeline on land that belongs to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other indigenous Americans. It also comes as the major climate activist group, 350.org, reports the fossil fuel divestment movement has doubled in size since September 2015, with institutions representing $5 trillion committed to divestment.

Trump continues to appoint climate change deniers to cabinet positions. Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson and former Texas Governor were recently appointed to secretary of state and secretary of energy positions.

The climate movement has an arduous struggle ahead with an adversarial administration willing to go so far as to demand Energy Department officials turn over the names of people who have worked on climate change so they can purge career employees from the department. Yet, the climate movement has built power, even though President Barack Obama kept the door open for the oil and gas industry to influence agencies and environmental policy.

Now, Trump will abandon the veneer of government independence and let energy corporations capture government. Oil and gas industry barons will have their way with Earth to maximize their profits.

It will be more difficult for the climate movement to achieve wins, but it is not like it was easy for environmentalists to kill TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline project and make other gains.

No matter who is sitting in the White House, the climate movement can still have a positive effect and protect communities from new and old projects that could destroy the environment.

Photo by DonkeyHotey on Flickr.
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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."