IN THE ongoing war over fracking, the loudest voices try their best to obscure this essential point: The controversial drilling technique doesn’t need to be banned; it needs to be well regulated. That’s how we explain the seemingly contradictory reaction to the Environmental Protection Agency’s assessment of fracking’s effects on drinking water, a draft report released last week that industry and environmental groups each spun to support its side. In fact, it supports neither side.
The EPA doesn’t pretend to have a final and precise answer on the scope of fracking’s impact on drinking water. There were sharp limits on its data. But the agency used 950 sources of information from government, industry and environmental groups, so their findings represent the best that science can offer right now. The conclusion: The EPA couldn’t find evidence that fracking has “led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.”
The assessment continued, “The number of identified cases where drinking water resources were impacted are small relative to the number of hydraulically fracked wells.” Given the economic and environmental benefits of using domestically fracked natural gas — which produces less carbon dioxide than coal when burned — the arguments for fracking bans continue to look very weak.
But, the report goes on, there are several possible mechanisms of contamination that drillers and regulators need to treat with a healthy caution: “We found specific instances where one or more of these mechanisms led to impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells.” Moreover, given the limitations of the available data, there might well have been instances of contamination that have been so far invisible to regulators.
Though the available evidence doesn’t justify banning the technique — as Maryland and New York have done — it clearly calls for sensibly regulating it. Properly cementing new wells is a must. Ensuring that blowout preventers, critical valves and other safety hardware are in good shape is, as well. Lining pits containing contaminated water can prevent seepage into groundwater. Taking care not to drill too close to another well, particularly old and rickety ones, can reduce the possibility of opening cracks in the subsurface geology that promote the movement of tainted water and chemicals.
Government officials need to pay attention to seemingly mundane considerations, too: Spillage from ancillary operations such as trucking wastewater to containment areas can affect drinking water if accidents happen in the wrong places. Promoting the reuse of fracking water would be a way for drought-prone states with significant fracking activity to conserve water for other uses.
Regulations can’t eliminate all the risks, even if the rules are enforced perfectly. Obtaining the energy that powers modern life is an enterprise with risk. But solid rules can acceptably minimize the risks of fracking.
We sympathize with those who argue that a broad shift toward renewable energy is the ultimate answer and that the sooner that happens, the better. But there will be a meantime in which the world transitions off fossil fuels and onto cleaner sources of energy. We will probably be in that meantime for many years — and while it lasts, well-regulated fracking shouldn’t be taken off the table.