But here is the real bottom line: The EPA study finds that fracking can harm drinking water in a variety of well-understood ways. It also finds that fracking has harmed drinking water in a number of instances across the country. And there are likely many more instances of harm from fracking than the EPA or anyone else has yet discovered.
The EPA concludes that fracking is linked to “important vulnerabilities to drinking water resources.” Translation: Fracking threatens water quality. Period.
The threats are five-fold, according to the EPA’s report:
- Fracking can strain water resources, especially in dry places or regions suffering from drought.
- Chemicals used in fracking, fracking fluid, and water from underground formations (which can be laced with toxics and radioactive elements), all have the potential to leak into water supplies.
- Wells can be drilled into underground aquifers.
- Chemical-laden liquids and gases can move through fractured rock underground, exiting formations that contain oil and natural gas, and entering water-bearing formations.
- Fracking wastewater can be stored, treated and disposed of in ways that risk causing water pollution.
The dangers the EPA found, and the occasions on which they are known to have contaminated drinking water, may not be the only ways fracking threatens drinking water. The EPA’s report notes that researchers encountered severe data limitations – including industry-backed restrictions on publicizing the number and location of fracking wells, as well as the identities and quantities of chemicals used – that limit our ability to know the full truth about fracking’s dangers.
The question now is what to do with the knowledge we do have. Should fracking be banned outright? Can stronger regulations be sufficiently protective of the public? Or should we continue with business as usual?
In considering the answer to those questions, it is important to ask a few others:
- Is a short-term boost in fossil fuel production worth risking enduring damage to groundwater supplies – damage that can be prohibitively expensive, if not impossible, to fully clean up?
- Is it fair to subject those living in areas where fracking takes place to the risk of water contamination in order to deliver cheaper fossil fuels to the rest of us?
- Is it smart to allow the widespread use of a self-evidently risky technology for more than a decade before determining whether it poses a threat to drinking water?
- Drinking water contamination is just one of many potential dangers posed by fracking. If one adds the public health damage caused by fracking-related air pollution, the damage to natural areas, the impact on local infrastructure and quality of life, and other costs of fracking, is it ever worth doing?
Even in places where fracking continues to take place, however, the EPA report has important implications. The risk posed by fracking to water supplies justifies requiring fracking companies to post bonds or other forms of financial assurance sufficient to ensure that the companies – not taxpayers – pay the full cost of cleaning up any damage.
And the data gaps in the EPA report indicate that it is critical to improve data collection on drinking water sources before and after fracking occurs, as well as to conduct additional hydrological studies about all methods of potential contamination of our precious drinking water sources.
We need to protect everyone’s water – including those people who live in areas where fracking is widespread. We should not threaten the scarce and valuable water supplies on which our lives depend by extracting from the ground polluting fossil fuels whose combustion endangers our very existence.