*Grace Galvin, a Communications Associate at WLF who received her JD from Charleston School of Law and is pursuing a Master’s in Journalism and Public Affairs at American University, contributed significantly to this post.
“A blessing” is the description Franklin Bess used to convey his feelings toward the oil and natural gas industry, as long as the drilling is American-based. He and his wife, Katie Bess, are the proud owners of The Williamson Ranch in west Texas, land that has been in Katie’s family for five generations.
In an interview with Ezra Levant, a Canadian broadcaster and “ethical oil” advocate, the Bess family expressed relief in April 2015 when an oil-and-gas exploration and production company bought their expiring lease with Tall City Exploration. This sale has provided the income necessary to allow the Bess family to maintain the ranching life—a rarity today—and pass their land on to future generations.
Many ranching families near Big Spring, Texas have similar stories, and they have the Permian Basin shale that lies beneath their town, and the use of such extraction techniques as hydraulic fracturing, to thank for their livelihoods. Unfortunately, environmental activists, with the help of the federal government, have generated a narrative that paints hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” as a destructive and offensive process.
Environmentalists responded to the increased use of fracking, as well as technological modifications such as horizontal fracking, with an assortment of demonization tactics. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) further fueled the anti-fracking frenzy five years ago, a frenzy which, to this day, EPA cannot justify through scientific evidence. After five years of studies and supposed collaboration with “states, tribes, industry, non-governmental organizations, the scientific community, and the public,” the agency claims that it has used “all data and information available” to finally conclude and release its report on the impacts from hydraulic fracturing activities on drinking water.
Washington Legal Foundation filed formal comments in August 2015, requesting EPA to make its findings in the final version of the draft report more explicit, hoping an accurate portrayal of fracking in a government study would help calm the unwarranted fears created by fracking opponents. Unfortunately, the agency has continued to cling to inconclusive studies so that it can issue a final report littered with conjectures.
While the 666-page report outlines the conceivable impacts fracking could have on drinking water sources, a careful reading reveals that the agency failed to find evidence of an actual threat in any of its case study locations.
Environmentalists, like Briana Mordick who served as a technical advisor to the EPA study on behalf of the environmental advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council, are not willing to accept that their anti-fracking crusade lacks any evidentiary support. They claim the oil industry created a blockade, preventing EPA scientists from gathering necessary data at oil drilling sites. But companies did, in fact, offer their drilling sites to the scientists.
Erik Milito, upstream director at the American Petroleum Institute, told the Houston Chronicle that Chesapeake Energy, along with other companies, made drilling sites available to EPA, but the agency did not take up these offers. EPA avoided using available sites from a cooperative industry, and also abandoned other avenues of study that left state agencies to pick up the slack.
For instance, consider what happened in Pavillion, Wyoming. EPA announced in 2011 that fracking was likely causing groundwater problems there. The agency initiated a study, for which it drilled two test wells at the site. After the agency’s draft study on the groundwater was roundly criticized by state environmental regulators and even other federal agencies, EPA declined to release a final report and abandoned the investigation. It handed the investigation over to Wyoming officials, effectively coercing the state to do the work of the federal government.
Results from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) two-year study indicate that hydraulic fracturing has not led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources. Ironically, the state DEQ did identify what was causing the reportedly foul smell in the EPA test wells: EPA’s faulty drilling of the wells clogged the drain screens, and the standing water became contaminated with bacteria.
What is EPA’s opinion of the report it essentially forced the state to complete? Last month, the Associated Press reported EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones as saying that the agency was reviewing Wyoming’s conclusions. But in the end, the agency chose not to use those conclusions in its final hydraulic fracturing report.
Also absent from EPA’s report is a three-year-long investigation of fracking’s effects on drinking water in the Marcellus Shale by the University of Cincinnati, completed in June 2015. As discussed in a WLF Legal Pulse post earlier this year, the study rejected a link between fracking and groundwater pollution.
Yet another study that didn’t make the EPA report comes from a team of researchers at Duke University. Their extensive study on the impact of fracking fluids on water sources was headed by Avner Vengosh, Professor of Geochemistry and Water Quality, and was published on October 14, 2016 in the peer-reviewed journal Science of the Total Environment.
The results of the Duke team’s study should further put fracking fears at ease, as Professor Vengosh said the team found that most of the wastewater from hydraulically fractured wells consisted of naturally occurring brines, not man-made fracking fluids.
EPA apparently views Professor Vengosh as a highly regarded, credible source. The agency’s final report cites 17 Vengosh studies or articles. However, EPA left his Duke study out of the report entirely, instead referencing Vengosh’s prior work, which was more supportive of the anti-fracking narrative.
Fracking fear is centered on the potential harm wastewater could cause if improperly disposed, due to the chemicals used. The Duke study tested fracking wastewater from unconventional oil and gas wells in six basins nationwide, touching seven different states. Professor Vengosh and his team at Duke found that the chemicals used in fracking fluids only account for between four and eight percent of the wastewater being generated over the active lifetime of fracked wells in the United States.
This means that at least 92 percent of the fracking wastewater is made up of naturally occurring brines, and with proper treatment, Professor Vengosh believes this wastewater could be reused, especially in the arid western states. The brines of fracking fluid used in western states have salinity similar to sea water, and they could be treated and utilized for agricultural irrigation in areas with limited freshwater. But the key takeaway from the Duke study, Professor Vengosh explained, is that “the probability of having environmental impacts from the man-made chemicals in fracking fluids is low, unless a direct spill of the chemicals occurs before the actual fracking.”
Chemicals used in the fracking process have many purposes that ensure the fracturing job is effective and efficient. They perform functions such as limiting the growth of bacteria and preventing corrosion of the well casing. But the exact mixture of chemicals used in the fracking process is the intellectual property of resource extraction companies—their proprietary trade secrets.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) enacted rules in March 2015, creating redundant regulations for the energy industry. These rules only impact wells on federally owned land, but that still accounts for almost one-fourth of the oil and gas operations in the country. BLM’s well-construction and safe-disposal standards mirror most state standards, but they also pile on regulations proposed in a bill introduced in Congress, but never acted on, called the FRAC Act, which require drillers on federal land to reveal the chemicals they use.
Media stories on EPA’s report have spun it as concluding that no definitive evidence proves that hydraulic fracturing does not threaten drinking water supplies. As explained above, that conclusion is deeply suspect. It’s important, however, to also view EPA’s conclusion in a different light: no proof exists that fracking pollutes the water supply. That is the conclusion that policy makers should embrace, especially if considered alongside the studies that EPA’s report ignored—those from Wyoming’s DEQ and Duke University. Such studies should provide assurance to the 115th Congress and new leadership of relevant federal agencies that state regulation effectively balances environmental protection and the goal of energy independence.
Striking such an essential balance will allow more ranching families and other landowners to enjoy the benefits of the valuable deposits that lie beneath their property, just as Franklin and Katie Bess have.
Also published by Forbes.com on WLF’s contributor page.