EPA Draft Report Stops Short of Condemning Fracking Outright

Federal agency identifies specific threats that hydraulic fracturing poses to supplies of drinking water

The federal government yesterday said the practice of drilling for natural gas by pumping huge quantities of water and some chemicals into the ground has the potential for affecting the quality of drinking water.

A draft report issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said that hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as fracking, has not led to widespread systematic impacts on drinking water. But it did identify ways in which water resources are vulnerable to the practice.

Fracking has become a huge issue in New Jersey and elsewhere in the region because of concerns that it poses a threat to the Delaware River, which millions of people rely on for drinking water.

“It’s the first time they have come forward with a quantitative analysis to show the impact on drinking water,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, referring to the draft report.

But the discovery of huge new deposits of natural gas in Pennsylvania and neighboring states — and the proliferation of fracking — has led to a dramatic drop in the cost of the fuel used by homeowners and businesses, a trend that has helped boost the economy.

In its draft report, the EPA said that while its review of data sources found specific instances in which well integrity and wastewater management related to hydraulic fracturing affected drinking water, they were few compared with the large number of hydraulic wells.

Nevertheless, the agency identified a number of concerns with the practice. These included water withdrawals from areas with low water quality; fracking directly into formations with water resources; and inadequately treated wastewater discharged into water resources.

According to the draft report, the amount of water used in 2011 and 2012 to drill for natural gas ranged around 44 billion gallons annually.

Critics contend that even beyond the huge amount of water used, the smaller amounts of toxic chemicals employed to fracture the formations containing the natural gas pose a danger to residents and drinking-water supplies.

The release of the draft report is likely to fuel debate over the practice of fracking, a trend opposed by many environmentalists but backed by many business interests.

“This has been the lone spot in our economy (where) increased production has led to lower energy costs and more jobs for American families,’’ said Thomas Pyle, president of the industry trade group, Institute for Energy Research.

Jim Benton, executive director of the New Jersey Petroleum Council, said the report demonstrates the process for fracking has been well established. “The experience overall has been positive,’’ he said.

But the new deposits of natural gas have led to a rapid expansion of pipelines in New Jersey, with utilities eager to tap into the cheaper fuel. Among other things, it makes it easier to invest in upgrades to their systems because customers are paying less for gas to heat their homes and run their businesses

[related]Critics, however, say that many of the pipelines will go through areas previously protected with taxpayers’ dollars to preserve open space and farmland.

To some, the draft report rebuts arguments that fracking is a danger to drinking water.

“Fracking pollutes our drinking water,’’ argued Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “It’s just not activists saying it anymore.’’