Study: Top Fracking States Ignore Findings That Their Drinking Water Is At Risk
Research ››› ››› DENISE ROBBINS
A recent national report from the Government Accountability Office found that a higher regulatory standard is needed to ensure that drinking water sources are protected from fracking wastewater practices. But the largest circulating newspapers of the states with the highest levels of fracking production -- therefore among the most vulnerable to its risks -- have ignored this study.
New Report Finds That More Needs To Be Done To Protect Drinking Water From Fracking
Fracking Wastewater Injection Linked To Seismic Activity. The hydraulic fracturing process, or "fracking," involves pumping a mixture of fluid chemicals into the earth at a high pressure, creating horizontal fractures that release more oil or natural gas from the rock formations than from vertical drilling alone. The oil and gas industry commonly uses "deep injection wells," also known as "class II" wells, to dump untreated waste fluids after they are used. As the level of fracking production escalates, the wastewater injection process has also increased; it more than tripled from the first half to the second half of 2011, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. With the uptick in fracking comes emerging risks. Scientists have linked the process to seismic activity, specifically to a recent surge of more than 200 earthquakes in Oklahoma so far this year, some of which have been disastrous. [NPR, accessed 8/6/14; Natural Resources Defense Council, May 2012; Scientific American, 7/3/14]
This Process Poses A Threat To Drinking Water; California Already Shut Down 11 Wastewater Wells. On July 3, California officials ordered 11 oil and gas waste disposal wells to be shut down anddozensof others to be reviewed out of concern that they may be polluting California's drinking water aquifers. Further, ProPublica investigated over 700,000 wastewater injection wells in 2012 and found that they were "often poorly regulated and experienced high rates of failure, outcomes that were likely polluting underground water supplies that are supposed to be protected by federal law":
California officials have ordered an emergency shut-down of 11 oil and gas waste injection sites and a review more than 100 others in the state's drought-wracked Central Valley out of fear that companies may have been pumping fracking fluids and other toxic waste into drinking water aquifers there.
A 2012 ProPublica investigation of more than 700,000 injection wells across the country found that wells were often poorly regulated and experienced high rates of failure, outcomes that were likely polluting underground water supplies that are supposed to be protected by federal law. That investigation also disclosed a little-known program overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that exempted more than 1,000 other drinking water aquifers from any sort of pollution protection at all, many of them in California.
Those are the aquifers at issue today. The exempted aquifers, according to documents the state filed with the U.S. EPA in 1981 and obtained by ProPublica, were poorly defined and ambiguously outlined. They were often identified by hand-drawn lines on a map, making it difficult to know today exactly which bodies of water were supposed to be protected, and by which aspects of the governing laws. Those exemptions and documents were signed by California Gov. Jerry Brown, who also was governor in 1981. [ProPublica, 7/18/14]
Government Accountability Office Report: Protection of Water Sources From Fluid Injection "Needs Improvement." In response to "concerns about the nation's drinking water" from wastewater injection related to fracking, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that safety practices are insufficient to handle the current level of fracking in the nation. The GAO reported that "[e]very day in the United States, at least 2 billion gallons of fluids are injected into over 172,000 wells to enhance oil and gas production, or to dispose of fluids brought to the surface during the extraction of oil and gas resources," and determined that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cannot adequately protect underground water sources from the wastewater injection process with its current resources. From the report:
- The EPA is "not consistently conducting two key oversight and enforcement activities" for these deep well injection practices because it "does not have the resources to do so." Further, the EPA has not evaluated this guidance since the 1980s, and without a follow-up evaluation the agency "does not know what oversight activities are most effective or necessary."
- Their safeguards do not address newly emerging risks such as seismic activity. The GAO states that "[w]ithout information on emerging risks on a national scale... state well injection programs may not have the information necessary to address these risks and ensure that their programs are designed to be effective at protecting underground sources of drinking water."
- The EPA is responsible for managing state's programs, but the agency "has a backlog of state program requirements that it cannot enforce if necessary" and therefore "cannot enforce some state program requirements." [U.S. Government Accountability Office, June 2014]
Top Four Fracking States In The Country Largely Overlooked The GAO Report
From The Four Top Fracking States, Only One PA Newspaper Reported On The Findings. Colorado, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Texas are the top fracking states in the nation, having fracked the most wells since 2005 according to a report from Environment America. Each of these states has well injection programs -- in fact, they were included in the sample of states that the GAO studied in their report. A Media Matters analysis of those states' top-circulating papers* finds that only one state-based newspaper out of 14 studied reported on the GAO's findings: the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. [Environment America, October 2013, U.S. Government Accountability Office, June 2014; Pittsburgh Tribune Review, 7/28/14]
Largest Circulating Pennsylvania Papers Reported That Fracking Waste Has Damaged State's Water Supply 209 Times Since 2007. The Pennsylvania newspapers studied did report on the findings that oil and gas drillings have harmed many drinking water sources in Pennsylvania over the past several years. Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection recently released the findings that oil and gas practices have harmed private water supplies in the state 209 times since the end of 2007. The Auditor General's Office issued a follow-up report, stating that the DEP was "unprepared to effectively administer laws and regulations to protect drinking water and unable to efficiently respond to citizen complaints" between 2009 and 2012. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Dan Simpson, the contamination comes "particularly from wastewater brought up from down deep" -- in other words, from the wastewater injection wells studied in the GAO report. But Pennsylvania officials are claiming that the risks show only how the fracking industry "formerly operated, not how the program currently functions." [Pittsburgh Tribune Review, 7/22/14; Philadelphia Inquirer, 7/31/14; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 7/27/14; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 7/30/14]
Some Of The Papers That Ignored GAO's Findings Have Pro-Fracking Stance. Of the papers that ignored the GAO report on the health risks of fracking, some of their editorial boards have taken a reportedly pro-fracking stance:
- The Denver Post board published an editorial berating the attempt for a local ban on fracking, claiming it is the "community effectively seizing the property of those who own the underground oil and natural gas." [Denver Post, 7/24/14]
- The Houston Chronicle published a similar editorial, calling on voters to "reject the fracking ban... Too much good comes from fracking." [Houston Chronicle, 7/17/14]
- Colorado's The Gazette published an editorial equating fracking rights to same-sex marriage, stating it is hypocritical to support one ban and not the other. [The Gazette, 7/16/14]
*Based on a Nexis search for "government accountability office and frack!" for July 25 to August 5, for the following newspapers: from Colorado, The Gazette and The Denver Post; from Pennsylvania, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and the Pittsburgh Tribune Review; from Texas, the Austin American-Statesman, The Dallas Morning News, El Paso Times, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Houston Chronicle, and San Antonio Express-News; from North Dakota, The Bismarck Tribune and Nexis Newsbank's North Dakota News Sources, which include the Grand Forks Herald and many other publications. Their circulations were obtained from the Alliance of Audited Media.
Photo at the top from Flickr user greensefa with a Creative Commons license