EPA's New Fracking Study: A Close Look at the Numbers Buried in the Fine Print

When EPA’s long-awaited draft assessment on fracking and drinking water supplies was released, the oil and gas industry triumphantly focused on a headline-making sentence: “We did not find evidence of widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.”

But for fracking’s backers, a sense of victory may prove to be fleeting.

EPA’s draft assessment made one thing clear: fracking has repeatedly contaminated drinking water supplies (a fact that the industry has long aggressively denied).

EPA Study: Fracking Puts Drinking Water Supplies at Risk of Contamination

The Environmental Protection Agency has released its long awaited draft assessment of the impacts that fracking has on the nation's drinking water supplies — confirming that the process does indeed contaminate water.

“From our assessment, we conclude there are above and below ground mechanisms by which hydraulic fracturing activities have the potential to impact drinking water resources,” the EPA wrote.

The impacts take a variety of forms, the EPA wrote, listing the effects of water consumption especially in arid regions or during droughts, chemical and wastewater spills, “fracturing directly into underground drinking water resources,” the movement of liquids and gasses below ground “and inadequate treatment and discharge of wastewater.”

The agency wrote that it had documented “specific instances” where each of those problems had in fact happened and some cases where multiple problems combined to pollute water supplies.

Will Re-Fracking be the Shale Drilling Industry's Next Big Move?

With oil prices continuing to languish, companies like Halliburton and Schlumberger have started talking up a way to get more shale oil and gas for less money: re-fracking wells drilled over the past 10 years, kick-starting flagging production and pumping out more shale oil and gas while spending less than the cost of a new well.

Excitement has spread among oil companies and investment analysts alike.

Environmentalists Are Taking California To Court Over Illegal Oil Industry Wastewater Injection

Environmentalists filed a motion requesting a preliminary injunction today in a California court to immediately stop the daily illegal injection of millions of gallons of oil field wastewater into protected groundwater aquifers in the state.

Last week, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity in Alameda County Superior Court that challenges California regulators’ emergency rules meant to rein in the state’s disastrous Underground Injection Control (UIC) program.

How Much Water Does The California Oil Industry Actually Use?

When California Governor Jerry Brown issued mandatory water restrictions for the first time in state history, he notably excluded the agriculture and oil industries from the conservation efforts, a decision that was heavily criticized.

The oil industry, for its part, insists it is a responsible user of water. The Western States Petroleum Association, an oil industry lobbying group, for instance, wrote that “Oil companies are doing their part to conserve, recycle and reduce the water they use to produce oil and refine petroleum products.”

Some perspective is certainly needed here: the amount of water used to produce oil in California is, in fact, dwarfed by the amount used for agriculture. But the thing is, the state can’t make any fully informed decisions about whether or not to include oil development in water cuts because no one knows exactly how much water the California oil industry is using in the first place. That all changes on April 30, however.

Last September, Governor Brown signed into law SB 1281, which requires companies to make quarterly reports to state regulators at the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) detailing the source and volume of water — whether fresh, treated, or recycled — used during oil development processes, including extreme oil extraction methods like fracking, acidization and steam injection. The first set of data required to be reported to DOGGR under SB 1281 is due at the end of the month.

Required reporting on water usage is an important first step in devising an effective water conservation plan for drought-wracked California, Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, tells DeSmogBlog.

“Without good data, we can’t have good policy,” Gleick says. “And it’s long overdue that the oil industry be transparent about water use and water quality. So I’m looking forward to more transparency.”

Calls For Immediate Shutdown Of Illegal California Injection Wells As Regulators Host 'Aquifer Exemption Workshop'

While California legislators are calling for immediate closure of the thousands of injection wells illegally dumping oil industry wastewater and enhanced oil recovery fluids into protected groundwater aquifers, regulators with the state’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) were holding an “Aquifer Exemption Workshop” in Long Beach on Tuesday.

Just 23 out of the 2,500 wells DOGGR officials have acknowledged the agency improperly permitted to operate in aquifers that contain potentially drinkable water have so far been closed down — 11 were closed down last July and 12 more were shut down earlier this month.

Given the urgency of the situation, it certainly does not look good that DOGGR made time to hold a workshop to outline “the data requirements and process for requesting an aquifer exemption under the Safe Drinking Water Act,” when it has given itself a two-year deadline to investigate the thousands more wells illegally operating in groundwater aquifers that should have been protected under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act all along.

Last Friday, state legislators sent Governor Jerry Brown a letter calling for the immediate closure of the wells, writing that “the decision to allow thousands of injection wells to continue pumping potentially hazardous fluids into protected aquifers is reckless.”

And protestors with Californians Against Fracking were outside the Holiday Inn Long Beach Airport on Tuesday to greet DOGGR officials as they showed up for their workshop.

Legislators Call Out California Regulators’ “Corrupt, Inept” Management Of Underground Wastewater Injection

The fallout from California officials’ failure to properly oversee the disposal of oil industry wastewater continued this week as lawmakers grilled officials with the state’s oil and gas regulatory agency for two hours while seeking assurances that they were getting the problem under control.

According to the LA Times, state senators “called the agency’s historic practices corrupt, inept, and woefully mismanaged.”

Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), who said that reading the background materials ahead of the hearing “caused her blood pressure to soar,” per the Times, pretty much nailed it when she said, “There has been a serious imbalance between the role [of] regulating the oil and gas industry and the role of protecting the public.”

DeSmog helped break the initial story in this ongoing saga last year when 11 underground injection wells were ordered to shut down over fears they were pumping toxic and carcinogenic chemical-laden wastewater from fracking and other oil production processes into groundwater aquifers protected under federal law. Last week, 12 more injection wells were shut down for the same reason.

In the intervening months, the true extent of the problem has slowly come to light. It was revealed in February that regulators at California’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) wrongfully issued permits for close to 500 wells to inject oil industry wastewater into aquifers containing water that is useable or could be made useable—water that is badly needed in drought-stricken California and should have been protected under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

More California Oil Industry Wastewater Injection Wells Shut Down Over Fears Of Groundwater Contamination

The latest in the ongoing investigation into California regulators’ failure to protect residents from toxic oil industry waste streams has led to the closure of 12 more underground injection wells. The 12 wells that were shut down this week are all in the Central Valley region, ground zero for oil production in the state.

California has roughly 50,000 underground injection wells. State officials are investigating just over 2,500 of them to determine whether or not they are injecting toxic chemical-laden oil industry wastewater into aquifers containing usable water (or at least potentially usable water) that should have been protected under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

A coalition of environmental, health and public advocacy groups filed a legal petition with Governor Jerry Brown last week in an attempt to force an emergency moratorium on fracking after it was discovered that flowback, a fluid that rises to the top of a fracked well, contains alarmingly high levels of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals.

Fracking flowback is an increasingly prevalent component of the oil industry wastewater that is being injected into the state’s aquifers, as fracking is now used in up to half of all new wells drilled in California.

Prompted by an inquiry by the federal Environmental Protection Agency in 2011, state officials shut down 11 wastewater injection wells last year over similar concerns that they were polluting badly needed sources of water in a time of prolonged drought. It was later confirmed that 9 of those wells were in fact pumping wastewater into protected aquifers—some 3 billion gallons of wastewater, by one estimate.

Since then, the fallout has continued at a rapid pace, with a new revelation coming seemingly every other month. In just the past few months, for instance, the scope of the problem has ballooned from hundreds of injection wells allowed to dump oil industry wastewater into protected aquifers to thousands more wells permitted to inject fluids from “enhanced oil recovery” techniques such as acidization and cyclic steam injection into protected aquifers.

USGS: Fracking Wastewater Disposal Wells Are Causing Oklahoma Earthquakes

Some of the most heavily fracked parts of the US have experienced an unprecedented wave of earthquakes in recent years even though they’ve long been considered geologically stable. But the oil and gas industry is quick to reject any suggestion that fracking is to blame.

The United States Geological Survey, for its part, has said in the past that the injection of fracking wastewater into deep geologic formations was a likely cause of the increased seismic activity in Oklahoma.

Now the agency has made it official.

“Deep injection of wastewater is the primary cause of the dramatic rise in detected earthquakes and the corresponding increase in seismic hazard in the central U.S.,” the USGS said in a press release.

Several scientists and seismologists with the USGS, the University of Colorado at Boulder, the Oklahoma Geological Survey, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have published a paper in the journal Science that calls for greater transparency from the oil and gas industry, as well as collaboration between industry, government, and the public, in order to mitigate the impacts of these “human-induced earthquakes.”

There were more earthquakes of magnitude 3 or higher in Oklahoma last year than in California. Several were of a magnitude greater than 5 and caused considerable damage.

The problem has become so prevalent that Oklahomans have started seeking earthquake insurance, which insurers used to dismiss with a laugh. But even as seismic activity increased since the rise of fracking in 2008, the industry and Oklahoma regulators took no meaningful action to protect residents, which is no surprise given how integral the oil and gas industry is to Oklahoma’s economy.

Company Presses Forward on Plans to Ship Fracking Wastewater via Barge in Ohio River, Drawing Objections from Locals

A major dispute is brewing over transporting wastewater from shale gas wells by barge in the Ohio River, the source of drinking water for millions of Americans.

On January 26, GreenHunter Water announced that it had been granted approval by the U.S. Coast Guard to haul tens of thousands of barrels from its shipping terminal and 70,000-barrel wastewater storage facility on the Ohio River in New Matamoras, Ohio.

“The U.S. Coast Guard approval is a significant 'win' for both GreenHunter Resources and our valued clients,” Kirk Trosclair, Chief Operating Officer at GreenHunter Resources, Inc., said in a statement announcing the Coast Guard's approval. “Our ability to transport disposal volumes via barge will significantly reduce our costs, improve our margins and allow us to pass along savings to our clients.”

Outraged environmental advocates immediately objected to the news.

Despite the thousands of comments from residents along the Ohio River opposing the risk of allowing toxic, radioactive fracking waste to be barged along the Ohio River, the Coast Guard quietly approved the plan at the end of 2014,” said Food & Water Watch Ohio Organizer Alison Auciello.

The Coast Guard is risking man-made earthquakes, drinking water contamination, leaks and spills. This approval compromises not only the health and safety of the millions who get their drinking water from the Ohio River but will increase the amount of toxic fracking waste that will be injected underground in Southeast Ohio.”

But the company's announcement was in fact made before the Coast Guard completed its review of the hazards of hauling shale gas wastewater via the nation's waterways – a process so controversial given the difficulty of controlling mid-river spills and the unique challenges of handling the radioactivity in Marcellus shale brine that proposed Coast Guard rules have drawn almost 70,000 public comments.

GreenHunter's move drew a sharp rebuke from Coast Guard officials. 


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