Special report: Louisiana's fracking tax program criticized; rebates could reach $1 billion per year _lowres

Advocate file photo by BILL FEIG -- TMS RA Verberne 5 is a well that Goodrich is drilling horizontally this week in Tangipahoa on LA-1061. Controversy over an exemption to severance taxes for horizontal drilling, which is necessary for fracking. It's about to cause a huge amount of activity in the Florida parishes.

When Congress asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to look at possible links between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water impairment back in 2010, the “Gasland” documentary was all the rage.

An oft-played snippet of the documentary shows someone turning on the kitchen faucet and setting the water on fire. So Congress wanted to know if the boom in hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas was doing harm.

On Thursday, EPA released its draft report. And its answer is a qualified no.

The report can be trumpeted as the “all clear” for those who support this revolutionary extraction technique but equally trumpeted by those who still have serious concerns about the damage this oil and gas process can have.

“The report confirms numerous other reports that hydraulic fracturing does not pose a threat to groundwater aquifers,” said Don Briggs, president of Louisiana Oil and Gas Association.

Critics of hydraulic fracturing say the report outlines a number of ways the technique could impact drinking water either at the surface or underground.

“I have documented the occurrence of pollution of ground water and surface water resources as a result of cement and casing failures, spills and leaks of chemicals, fracking fluids and flow back fluids and inadequate treatment and discharge of waste water,” wrote Wilma Subra, chemist and technical advisor for Louisiana Environmental Action Network. She says the EPA study “confirms the observations and data I have collected.”

The draft report released Thursday is the result of years of work in EPA research as well as science literature review, state and federal reports, information from nonprofits and various databases.

During an EPA webinar about the report, senior scientist with EPA Jeff Frithsen said the report is not meant to look at human health risks, it’s not site specific and is not designed to be used to inform specific policy decisions.

“This assessment has been valuable to identify potential vulnerabilities to drinking water resources due to hydraulic fracturing,” Frithsen said.

Hydraulic fracturing involves drilling down into the earth and then horizontally where the oil or gas is located. Water and chemical additives are pumped down the pipe at high pressure to crack the shale or other rock, releasing the oil or gas trapped there. Concerns for pollution can come from either the chemicals that are mixed at the surface and pump below ground or production fluid that is pumped back up and sometimes stored at the surface before disposal. In both cases, the material could intersect with a drinking water level through the fractures.

The report estimates that from 2011 to 2014, there were 25,000 to 30,000 new oil and gas wells hydraulically fractured each year.

“We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States,” the report says. There were some cases of impacts on drinking water, but that number was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.

At the same time, the report gives a lot of wiggle room by saying that conclusion could also be a result of poor information on water quality in an area before and after fracking, the lack of long-term studies on the issue, and the inability to obtain information about chemicals pumped down the well.

“Well operators claimed at least one chemical as confidential at more than 70 percent of wells reported to FracFocus and analyzed by the EPA,” the report says.

There’s also a lack of information on just how many wells are out there, where all the drinking water resources are located and updated information about how the industry goes about drilling a well.

In Louisiana and Texas, the report says, the shale formations in which the fracking is taking place is deep in the earth, sometimes a mile or more below where the drinking water lies. It’s very unlikely fractures made by the drilling could expand to reach the drinking water aquifers, the report says.

“It confirms what we’ve been saying all along. If you construct your wells properly and follow all the rules, it’s not going to be a problem for drinking water,” said Richard Metcalf, director of environmental affairs with Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association. There’s still vulnerability where the pipe travels through the drinking water levels, but that’s the case with all wells, not just fracking, he said.

In states like Michigan, Illinois, Indiana or Kentucky, the separation could be less than 2,000 feet.

In an associated report also released Thursday on sites in North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Colorado, EPA documented some links to drinking water problems. But in other areas, the problems couldn’t be confirmed to a source.

“The EPA’s water quality study confirms what millions of Americans already know — that dirty oil and gas fracking contaminates drinking water,” wrote Michael Brune, Sierra Club executive director. “Unfortunately, the EPA chose to leave many critical questions unanswered.”

The draft report is open for public comment until Aug. 28. Comments can be made through the e-Government Regulations website at www.regulations.gov. Select “Environmental Protection Agency and the keyword “EPA-HQ-OA-2015-0245 (for the docket ID) to comment on this report. Comments can also be mailed to Office of Environmental Information Docket (Mail Code: 28221T), Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OA-2015-0245 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1200 Pennsylvania Ave. NW., Washington, DC 20460.

Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.