Fracking and Water: It’s about more than Contamination

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recent study on the connection between fracking and water contamination made headlines earlier this month, with environmental groups seeing it as proof that fracking threatens drinking water and industry using it to argue that fracking is safe.

Differences in how to interpret the water contamination findings from the EPA report have overshadowed its other key findings: the enormous amount of water and diversity of toxic chemicals required to feed the fracking boom.

EPA analyzed reports to FracFocus, an industry-sponsored website to which well operators report the names of chemicals and amounts of water used in fracking. EPA looked at 38,530 reports to FracFocus received between Jan. 1, 2011 and Feb. 28, 2013. EPA released this information last March and incorporated it into its final report, finding:

  • In just two years, operators reported using 90 billion gallons of water. Most of the water comes from the rivers, lakes, and aquifers near drilling areas, potentially straining local water sources. In fact, according to the nonprofit organization Ceres, over half of all U.S. fracking wells are located in areas of extreme drought.

  • Each well requires between 30,000 and 7.2 million gallons to frack. On average, gas wells used 2.9 million gallons of water and oil wells 1.2 million gallons each.

  • 692 unique ingredients were used in fracking fluids. Water typically makes up the bulk of fracking fluids, but various chemicals are also added to alter the fluids’ composition. Methanol, a toxic chemical, was the most commonly used additive and was apparently included in 71 percent of available well reports.

EPA’s analysis is limited to just a snapshot of fracking’s impact over a two-year time period. During the period covered in EPA’s review, less than one-third of states (six out of 20) in the FracFocus database required well operators to report essential data to FracFocus. The actual volume of water being used – and diversity of potentially toxic chemicals added – is likely much higher.

Additionally, FracFocus has many shortcomings that make it an unreliable source of information on fracking operations.

  • Some states do not require reporting to FracFocus. Today, 27 states require operators to disclose the chemicals they use in fracking, but only two-thirds (18 out of 27) require them to use FracFocus. This limits the ability to use FracFocus data for a nationwide survey of fracking practices.

  • Most states allow operators to withhold chemical information. Operators have taken advantage of loopholes that allow them to withhold the names of chemicals by claiming they are trade secrets. Over 70 percent of reports analyzed by EPA contained at least one trade secrets claim, with an average number of five per report.

  • FracFocus is not user-friendly. The website has received criticism for posting fracking records as PDFs, which prevents users from extracting large amounts of data at one time. This spring, FracFocus began allowing users to download the entire dataset at once. However, they chose a difficult-to-use format even though more flexible, universal formats are available (such as those used in government databases).

FracFocus’s shortcomings underscore the need to require all well operators to report to a comprehensive national, government-run public website.

While an upgrade to FracFocus with improved features was announced last February, fracking information should be gathered by a federal agency – not an industry-sponsored website. The data collected should be “cleaned” – i.e., analyzed for completeness and errors, and made accessible through a user-friendly, searchable database.

The failure to require full disclosure of all chemicals used as well as the amount of water used from all well operators – along with industry’s refusal to cooperate with baseline testing – means that local communities and states cannot fully assess the impact of fracking operations on water use and contamination. Without such information, our government cannot make informed decisions about how to manage natural resources that we’ll need for future generations.

To explore the link between fracking and water stress, visit these interactive maps on the Ceres website.  

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