Interior Department report on fracking doesn’t set a clear standard for protecting water

The Interior Department’s report on hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, doesn’t make clear whether the practice is safe.

Last week, Interior released a technical report on fracking that says that companies can safeguard groundwater without damaging it by staying within shallow wells and following certain standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. The new report does not establish whether fracking is safer than other methods of extracting oil and gas in the U.S.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke criticized the Environmental Protection Agency for not determining the effectiveness of stricter standards, calling the agency’s approach “fallacy-free.” The EPA has previously attempted to regulate fracking with both stronger standards and fracking, an administrative mandate called the Safe Drinking Water Act. However, fracking was exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act from 2005 to 2017. During the 2016 election, then-President Barack Obama announced an end to the exemption. Zinke, who serves as a chair of Trump’s committee on jobs and infrastructure, said he wanted to reverse that.

In 2013, a series of EPA investigations found fracking wastewater had contaminated groundwater in Pennsylvania and Arkansas. But Interior, instead of acting on the EPA’s recommendations, blamed the mess on other companies involved in the drilling process. Interior’s estimate, therefore, is based on relying on prior standard practices, said Damon Moglen, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s climate campaign. “It’s inconceivable,” he said, “that Interior would not consider these steps to protect clean water.”

But there are many critical areas in the report that are missing, noted Ivan Schneeberger, a climate scientist at George Mason University. Interior hasn’t outlined what “shallow well” or “intensified oil and gas operations” actually mean. Since the EPA and Interior have different parameters for this sort of drilling, Mr. Schneeberger wonders, will some oil companies actually have to comply?


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