The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has finally admitted what the rest of us already know: Sometimes fracking pollutes drinking water.
On Tuesday, the EPA issued a report on fracking’s impacts on drinking water supplies. The media described the report as “long-awaited” and “highly anticipated” because it’s taken the EPA more than half a decade to put it together.
The first draft of the report was issued last year and recently became mired in controversy after journalists discovered that officials sought to downplay its most controversial findings by inserting language at the last minute. Now, in the final days of the Obama administration, the EPA is coming clean.
For those seeking stronger water protections, the report is way too little, way too late. Yes, advocates can use the report to challenge attempts by the incoming Trump administration to slash environmental regulations, but don’t expect Donald Trump’s EPA to read it and propose new ones.
What does the report say? In summary, fracking can pollute sources of drinking water when operators build faulty wells, suck up limited groundwater resources, suffer accidents and spills involving toxic fracking chemicals, or store fracking wastewater contaminated with these chemicals in unlined pits.
These problems don’t always happen, but they can and have in the past. What remains unclear is how often. In a fact sheet, the EPA said that “data gaps and uncertainties made it difficult to fully assess impacts” both nationally and in local areas. Such data is often difficult to collect or not collected at all, and oil and gas companies have locked some of it away in non-disclosure agreements resulting from lawsuits over fracking pollution.
Environmental watchdogs and journalists like myself have been cataloguing these problems for years, and they are not the only problems caused by the fracking boom. From silica mines blowing cancerous dust to earthquakes linked to wastewater disposal in underground wells, fracking has left its mark on the environment and communities across the country.
Over the past decade, the rapid deployment of enhanced hydraulic fracturing technology quickly industrialized rural areas, bringing communities from boom to bust. Oil and gas reserves grew, prices dropped and the industry rushed to build pipelines and expand exports. The US secured its so-called energy independence just as concerns over climate disruption and our addiction to fossil fuels reached a fever pitch.
Some people got rich, and some people got dirty water.
If the EPA’s report tells us anything we haven’t heard before, it’s about the nature of the EPA and the administration that’s been running it for the past eight years. Fracking is one of the biggest stories of the Obama administration, which saw natural gas as a “bridge fuel” that could reduce the nation’s reliance on burning coal and help the US meet international climate goals.
In the meantime, President Obama had to keep both a hungry industry and environmentalists happy. This got complicated when people who had nothing to do with the environmental movement joined the chorus of fracking’s critics after rigs and pipelines popped up in their neighborhoods and dirty water started flowing from their taps.
There are always winners and losers when it comes to resource extraction and the pollution it creates. Backed by laws like the Clean Water Act, the EPA has some say in the matter. Outside of legislative bodies, the agency is the designated federal space where industry, environmental activists and people who suffer from the impacts of pollution butt heads and attempt to codify their interests into public policy.
When making big decisions, the EPA takes comments from all sides, just as the authors of the fracking report heard from health professionals, the industry and the people affected by it. Eventually it makes a decision that attempts to reach a compromise between competing interests without straying too far from the political agenda of the administration that runs it. When one or more parties remain unsatisfied, the dispute often spills out into the courts.
This process is lengthy and arduous, which is one reason why it took the EPA years to complete an assignment from Congress and determine whether fracking could be compromising drinking water. In the meantime, fracking altered the landscape in huge swaths of the country, leaving people worried about their air and water, and health problems, such as respiratory disorders and premature births.
To the agency’s credit, the EPA did establish some modest regulations of air pollution and climate-warming methane leaks generated by oil and gas production, but these rules could be rolled back or simply not enforced under the Trump administration. The EPA isn’t useless — it made some ambitious strides under Obama that were met by a barrage of lawsuits — but its mission appears perpetually inhibited by institutional politics.
The Obama EPA’s final word on fracking makes it clear that we cannot rely solely on the government to protect us from pollution. People across the country are already aware of this. From Standing Rock in North Dakota to the oil fields of the Gulf South, people are taking matters into their own hands, defiantly putting their very bodies in the way of pipelines and fossil fuel production.
Now is the time to join them. We may not all live in the shadow of a pipeline or a fracking rig, but we all live in the shadow of climate disruption. If we keep burning this stuff, then we all lose.