Process of mixing water with fracking fluids to be injected into the ground (Wikimedia Commons)

Process of mixing water with fracking fluids to be injected into the ground (Wikimedia Commons)

An internal draft Environmental Protection Agency document leaked to DeSmogBlog shows that EPA scientists and professional staff have identified numerous toxic and radioactive substances in shale gas extraction wastewaters at high enough levels to cause concern. Will the agency be allowed to do its job of aggressively protecting public health and the environment from fracking contamination, or will pro-fracking political pressure from the White House and industry get in the way?

The leaked document, dated March 7, 2014, is titled National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permitting and Pretreatment for Shale Gas Extraction Wastewaters: Frequently Asked Questions.

DeSmogBlog reported today (Exclusive: Leaked EPA Draft Fracking Wastewater Guidance Suggests Closer Scrutiny for Treatment Plants):

One of the most intractable problems related to fracking is that each well drilled creates millions of gallons of radioactive and toxic wastewater.

For the past several years, the Environmental Protection Agency has faced enormous public pressure to ensure this dangerous waste stops ending up dumped in rivers or causing contamination in other ways.

But the drilling boom has proceeded at such an accelerated pace in the United States that regulators have struggled to keep up, to control or even track where the oil and gas industry is disposing of this radioactive waste. As a consequence, hundreds of millions of gallons of partially treated waste have ended up in the rivers from which millions of Americans get their drinking water.

An internal draft EPA document leaked to DeSmog gives a small window into how, after a full decade since the start of the drilling boom, the agency is responding. …

It’s revealing for what it shows about how EPA staff are taking the hazards of fracking wastewater more seriously — and also how little things have changed. …

Fracking raises concerns about chemical contamination of drinking water in affected areas, large-scale use of water in drilling, air pollution, industrial degradation of rural landscapes, and fugitive emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

The Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for protecting the public from harmful environmental impacts of fracking. The EPA has pulled back from several high-profile investigations into fracking contamination incidents in a manner that has raised concerns about whether political pressure may be compromising EPA’s ability to conduct an impartial assessment of the risks fracking presents to drinking water. EPA recently announced that it has delayed the expected final date of its fracking impacts study until 2016. Meanwhile, industry continues to create a fait accompli of expanded fracking operations.

The dramatic increase in natural gas production using directional drilling technology and hydraulic fracturing of shale deposits appears to be an essential component of meeting the Obama administration’s 2020 goal for reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions “in the range of 17%” below the 2005 level.

The administration is relying on cheap natural gas to displace coal in electricity generation. Displacing coal can make a significant contribution to reducing U.S. emissions through 2020. But relatively cheap and plentiful natural gas does not only compete with coal. It competes with energy efficiency and renewable energy, which should be the fundamental basis for a long-term emissions reduction strategy. If cutting back on coal use is done by fully opening the natural gas valve, we may do more to undermine the goal of a fossil-fuel phase-out than to advance it.


Of course, the EPA‘s draft document on the wastewater must be read against the backdrop of certain realities. Laws are only as good as their enforcement. …

To be clear, the front-line scientists and regional officials in closest contact with the effects of shale gas extraction have rarely been the problem when it comes to enforcement. It has often been the political appointees that have pulled back on the federal agencies’ duties.

Earlier posts:

Internal EPA report shows division over fracking contamination study

Fracking Boom Spews Toxic Air Emissions on Texas Residents

Texas Officials Turn Blind Eye to Fracking Industry’s Toxic Air Emissions

A call for congressional hearings on methane emissions from natural gas

Review comments on CAR-6: U.S. Climate Action Report draft lacks long-term strategy

“Obama and Harper — Modes of Support for Fossil Fuel Development”