EPA Questions Its Own Fracking Report Right When It's Least Likely to Matter

Despite all those videos out there showing a North Texas man lighting his water on fire as it flowed right out of the tap — a development that many blamed on hydraulic fracturing in the Barnett Shale — last year the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that fracking doesn't pose any serious risk to groundwater.


So it's really no surprise the EPA's report on fracking has come under, you know, fire. However, it is a bit of a shock that the most pointed criticism is coming from an arm of the federal regulatory agency itself.

The EPA's  three-year study looked at 3,500 sources, including previously published papers, state reports and the agency's own research to try to figure out if chemicals used in fracking were leaking out of wells and into drinking water. And then last June, the agency concluded that fracking does not have "widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water." However, the EPA Science Advisory Board, a peer review board set up by Congress in 1978, was apparently not buying the agency's conclusions. 

The advisory board recently issued a report of its own contending that the agency's main conclusion about fracking "is ambiguous and requires clarification." The 31-member panel didn't stop there.  The draft report, released late last week, contends that the findings from the EPA water study "are inconsistent with the observations, data and levels of uncertainty."

Of course, the grand irony of the whole thing is that the EPA advisory panel came out with these conclusions precisely when it is least likely to matter. 

The controversy over fracking first came up when the Barnett Shale, a natural gas-rich play in North Texas, started booming in the early 2000s. The brittle shale formation had been unlocked by using the combined techniques of slant drilling and hydraulic fracturing to drill into the dense, brittle shale formation and then flood the well with a mixture of sand, water and chemicals that sent fissures into the rock unlocking the natural gas and oil trapped in the formation. The new techniques sparked a frenzy of drilling in the Barnett Shale, but the drilling was also quickly a source of controversy with some people reporting health issues and various problems with their water, including the fact that they could light it on fire. 

The controversy didn't stop the drilling, but when natural gas prices sank, partly because there was a massive glut of the stuff on the market, drillers quickly turned to shale plays that were rich in crude oil. Suddenly, the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas, the Wolfcamp Shale in West Texas and the Bakken Shale in North Dakota were booming.  The shale plays sparked a U.S. oil industry renaissance, and thus the oil industry fought tooth and nail against any negative implications that could even possibly be tied to fracking.

Why? Primarily because oil prices were hovering around $100 per barrel and everyone in the oil industry was predicting prices would stay that high for the foreseeable future. These wells were expensive to drill, but it was completely worthwhile as long as oil stayed above about $60 per barrel. And the same thinking led the oil industry to reject any implication that fracking could be messing up drinking water. 

However, in June 2014 oil prices started tumbling and oil companies began pulling out of the shale plays once oil was below $60 per barrel. Things have gotten steadily worse for the oil industry over the course of the past year, and it doesn't look as if they'll be getting better anytime soon. In fact, on Monday oil hit a new low, dipping below $32 per barrel for the first time in 12 years. 

And in the middle of all this, as oil field workers are packing up and pulling out of South Texas and West Texas and North Dakota, the EPA advisory board comes out with a report saying that the board doesn't agree with the previous EPA report.

At one point, the advisory board's report could have been a huge deal, but right now the oil industry obviously has bigger things to contend with. There have already been thousands of layoffs, and some companies are merging while others are going into bankruptcy because of low oil prices. With the tanking oil prices that just keep getting lower, oil companies aren't drilling in shale plays, so the whole water quality issue is almost a moot point. 

The advisory board's report on the EPA study isn't final anyway. The board will review and debate the report draft on February 1 and the report may be revised before it's formally sent off to the EPA. The federal agency isn't required to make any changes to its study based on the advisory panel, but it's still a big deal that the panel is criticizing what is, to date, the most in-depth look at the possible ties between fracking and water contamination. Not that it matters right now, because oil prices mean there's currently no money to be had from drilling in shale plays. 

Maybe that's why the EPA advisory panel finally dared to disagree with the report in the first place.

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