Monday Mailbag: Tall Drink of Water

06/16/15 | Karyl Patredis

Does fracking poison our drinking water?

We’ve all been asked if we think the glass if half full or half empty. Allegedly, this one question tells the world everything they need to know about your outlook on life. You’re either an optimist or a pessimist and it’s all wrapped up in how you view four ounces of water in an eight-ounce glass. While this is a common query, it’s not often that the subject of this experiment first investigates the drinkability of the water. However, if you live in a town like Longview, Texas where there is documented fracking activity occurring in the area, this might cross your mind.

On June 4th, the Unites States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released an Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources. The whole kit n’ caboodle has a whopping 998 pages. So if you have something else to do with your day, the executive summary will likely tell you everything you’d like to know in a fraction of the time. And, if you have even less time, the CliffsNotes version is that the report found no evidence that fracking has “led to widespread, systematic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.” If you continue reading, the assessment qualifies this statement by saying that they did find “specific instances” where contamination occurred throughout the course of their study.

As was underscored in an earlier Insights post, the way we view certain information often depends on where we’re standing. If you’re the executive director of the Sierra Club, the portions of the assessment that describe the cases where water contamination occurred may be all that matters. Any contamination is too much. On the other hand, if you’re a shale producer, this is the best news you’ve heard all year.

Water pollution is often a result of contractor error. For example, drinking water could be at risk when the cement casing fails. Since fracking happens below the level of the water table, cement is used around the drill. If the cement contractor does a poor job, frack fluid could leak. When water is disposed of improperly, problems may also arise. Many hope for increased regulations which could lessen risks of contamination while also providing further transparency and improving public perception of the practice.

The EPA clearly indicates that the instances of proven contamination were small in comparison to the amount of hydraulically fractured wells. At Alerian, we believe it’s important to understand the risks related to fracking since a handful of MLPs—including frac sand miners Emerge Energy Services (EMES) and Hi-Crush Partners (HCLP)—provide support to fracking operations and because it impacts production volumes. But we always like to remind investors that MLPs themselves aren’t directly involved in fracking. That said, it will be extremely interesting to follow the fate of fracking and current fracking bans in the wake of this study. Those who strongly support the shale revolution and US energy independence may believe this study proves the benefits of fracking far outweigh the costs. But, then again, it’s kind of like the glass of water, you’re either for fracking or against it and it’s all wrapped up in your frame of reference.