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Both Sides Claim Victory Over EPA Fracking Study


For a long time, environmental groups in the U.S. have been arguing that hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, pollutes drinking water supplies. The oil industry disagrees, maintaining that fracking is safe. Now the federal government has weighed in. NPR's Jeff Brady joins me to talk about this report. Welcome, Jeff.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: This is a draft report that came down from the Environmental Protection Agency late last week. What was their conclusion?

BRADY: The EPA found no evidence that hydraulic fracturing has led to widespread, systemic pollution to drinking water. Now, two important things there - first, it found no evidence. That doesn't mean it's not happening, just that in this big study of the science available, the EPA didn't find evidence. And second, the words widespread and systemic, that leaves open the possibility of specific cases of pollution. And we know that those exist because we've seen examples around the country. Pavilion, Wyo., Dimock, Pa., those are notable cases. But a key takeaway from this, according to the EPA, is that the practice of fracking oil and gas wells has grown dramatically in recent years. And there's no evidence that's causing widespread problems.

MARTIN: So what does this mean, Jeff? Does this settle the question of whether fracking pollutes drinking water?

BRADY: No, but it's a really complicated question because fracking is happening in a lot of places, all of them with different geology and different companies with varying levels of experience. Just after this draft assessment came out, I called up Rob Jackson. He's an environmental scientist at the Stanford University. And he was pretty disappointed in the EPA study. He wanted to see a lot more original research in there.

ROB JACKSON: People who support drilling will see the report as a vindication. Opponents won't be impressed, though. They'll see it as a whitewash. I don't think it'll change a lot of minds on either side of the aisle or the table.

BRADY: I've talked with a lot of people on both sides since this report came out. And I have to say, Rob Jackson is correct. It's not changing people's minds.

MARTIN: OK, so what else is notable about this report? I understand it does highlight a number of other vulnerabilities.

BRADY: Right. These are important, and they were overlooked a little because of that headline about no evidence of widespread problems. The EPA says there are some things associated with drilling and fracking that need to be watched very closely. One is the amount of water used in fracking. It can be several million gallons for each well. And the water is mixed with chemicals and sand, so it's not drinkable afterwards. And often, those wells are drilled in places where water is scarce. Another is the casing and the cement in these wells. That's designed to protect groundwater from fracking fluid. And if that work is done improperly, the wells and the casing can leak. And we've seen that in some cases around the country too. Another issue, how this dirty water, after the fracking process, is handled. There can be spills that cause pollution. And if the water is going to be treated, that has to be done properly - so a few examples, there, of the vulnerabilities the EPA report highlights.

MARTIN: So you are going to the New York-Pennsylvania border next week, Jeff. New York State has banned fracking. The best science released by the EPA in this report suggests that there are limited risks. So what does that mean? Does that mean New York is needlessly missing an economic opportunity?

BRADY: Well, that's certainly what I hear from property owners who look across the state line over to Pennsylvania and see their neighbors getting rich. But remember, this EPA report is focused only on water. New York looked at all kinds of effects from fracking. And the state concluded back in December that it couldn't guarantee that the practice was safe. Most states have just sort of accepted that fracking will happen. And then they try to regulate it. But I don't think we've heard the end of that in New York yet. I think we can expect some big lawsuits over that ban on fracking.

MARTIN: NPR's national correspondent, Jeff Brady. Thanks so much, Jeff.

BRADY: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.