By The Editorial Board | July 5, 2015 | USA Today
Boom has helped make America the world's No. 1 producer of oil and gas.
Fracking — the practice of cracking open underground oil and gas formations with water, sand and chemicals — has rescued U.S. energy production from a dangerous decline. Any debate about banning it should take a hard look at what that would cost the nation and at facts that aren't always part of the discussion.
Those facts are spelled out in a recent report from the Environmental Protection Agency on fracking and groundwater. One of the harshest charges against fracking, often leveled with apocalyptic intensity by its foes, is that it indiscriminately contaminates vital drinking water supplies.
The EPA's timely report essentially said that's overblown.
The study identified many ways fracking could cause damage, but found little evidence that it had. Yes, there were instances of contaminated drinking water wells, but there was no evidence of "widespread, systemic" harm, and the number of problems that did occur "was small compared to the number of (fracked) wells."
no follow-up investigations change these findings, the report adds to the solid case that fracking should continue, with careful oversight, and that bans in Maryland, New York and other states are wrongheaded.
The EPA findings come as welcome news because it's hard to overstate the impact fracking has had on U.S. oil and gas production, which looked to be in irreversible decline in the 1980s. The decline raised fears that imports would soar, making the United States even more dependent than it already was on other nations.
Fracking now accounts for 56% of U.S. natural gas production and 48% of oil output, according to the Energy Information Administration. The boom has helped make America the world's No. 1 producer of oil and gas, and it has pushed the nation much closer to energy independence than almost anyone dared hope in the 1980s and 1990s.
Huge new natural gas supplies have helped lower prices, fuel a manufacturing turnaround and displace much dirtier coal in electricity production, cutting air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
All that said, the EPA report does validate fears that fracking can be a serious hazard if done sloppily. Like conventional wells, fracked wells have to pass through groundwater on their way to oil and gas zones that can be a mile or more below the deepest groundwater. Wells must be secured with casing and cement that keep fracking fluids, oil and gas from escaping into drinking water, but the EPA found scattered instances where inadequate casing or a bad cement job allowed natural gas and chemicals to get into groundwater.
Drilling for oil and gas is complicated and challenging, but safe drilling and production practices have been known for decades. Drillers have learned that the price for sloppiness can be catastrophic, as with the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico five years ago, which just cost BP a settlement for nearly $19 billion.
Ultimately, it's up to the industry to show that the considerable rewards from fracking justify the sort of risks the EPA study identified. So far, that's what has happened.
USA TODAY's editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view — a unique USA TODAY feature.