William Alley: 'Fracking' debate lacks basic groundwater research

WESTERVILLE, Ohio--"Does fracking contaminate groundwater?" This is a critical question surrounding the development of oil and gas using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (aka "fracking").


WESTERVILLE, Ohio-"Does fracking contaminate groundwater?" This is a critical question surrounding the development of oil and gas using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (aka "fracking").

On Dec. 13, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a long-awaited final report on the effects of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources in the United States.

The report identifies risk factors based on a review of available data and studies. But it is short on definitive statements.

The EPA has struggled with its messaging, which was summarized in an earlier draft as there is "no evidence for widespread, systemic impacts" and in the final report as "hydraulic fracturing activities can impact drinking water resources under some circumstances."

Although consistent with one another, these statements convey different overarching messages in media reporting.


The messaging problems arise in large part because the U.S. government has funded little fundamental research to address key unanswered questions. The EPA report notes insufficient pre- and post-fracturing data on the quality of drinking water resources and the paucity of long-term, systematic studies.

For example, the history of groundwater contamination has shown that properly designed and located monitoring wells are necessary to study contamination processes. Unfortunately, studies to date for hydraulic fracturing have relied almost exclusively on wells of convenience - domestic wells that are sampled to address questions of liability.

Such wells are a poor substitute for specially-designed monitoring wells. They also lead to a false sense that the issue of groundwater contamination is being addressed in a comprehensive way. Sampling needs to be conducted closer to well pads, at multiple depths and over a longer timeframe.

Groundwater moves slowly, and contaminant occurrence in aquifers used for drinking water can significantly lag behind oil and gas well installation and hydraulic fracturing. This time lag complicates the true picture of groundwater contamination and supports the need for long-term monitoring.

Groundwater supplies more than 40 percent of U.S. drinking water and virtually all of the drinking water in rural areas, where most oil and gas operations are underway. Once contaminated, groundwater is exceedingly difficult and expensive to clean up.

The United States is endowed with vast oil and gas resources and high-quality groundwater. Both resources are important and should be developed in mutually compatible ways.

It is the role of government to develop credible and comprehensive data and information to support sound policies to minimize risks. Federal funding to support such research for hydraulic fracturing has been noticeably lacking.

Alley is director of science and technology for the National Ground Water Association.

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