"There's never been a documented case of contaminated water supply," Ed Ireland, executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, an industry group, told me in 2010. It's a line that has been repeated by various people in the energy industry—and quoted by reporters like me—as the practice of fracking (or using pressurized water to fracture shale and release the natural gas within) has come under increased scrutiny. It's been almost a mantra among key players in energy policy, including, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson.

"I'm not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself has affected water, although there are investigations ongoing," she told Congress earlier this year, a line repeated by other Obama administration officials and demanded by proponents of fracking, such as Senator James Inhofe.

It also now turns out to be false. A 1987 study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency documented at least one case where some of the gel used in fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing, had contaminated well water in West Virginia.

Dug up by the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group that has some scientists on staff, the study documents an incident from 1984 in which a fracked natural gas well more than a kilometer deep contaminated a nearby, much shallower drinking water well with both "fracture fluid" and natural gas, rendering it unpotable. The New York Times has published the EPA report and supporting documentation from state and local officials on its Web site.

The American Petroleum Institute, an industry body, characterized the contamination at the time as an "accident" or "malfunction" and suggested it was a singular case. But the EPA, for its part in the 1987 report, called it "illustrative" of general practices and noted that legal settlements precluded access to other scientific documentation of such contamination.

Regardless, in 2005 the U.S. Congress specifically exempted fracking from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act after a more recent EPA report found little risk to drinking water from fracking. After all, the hydraulic fracturing occurs thousands of meters below drinking water aquifers and—if done properly—should arguably pose little threat. But old natural gas and oil wells or unexpected adjacent fissures, as in the West Virginia case, can allow fluids or gases to migrate. And there are millions of abandoned wells across the U.S., dating back to the first well drilled for oil in Titusville, Penn. That was in 1859. All told, industry has drilled as many as 12 million wells of varying depths across the U.S. in search of oil and gas.

The EPA is in the midst of conducting another analysis of the risks from fracking on drinking water while industry continues to drill hundreds of wells using hydraulic fracturing from Colorado and Texas to West Virginia and New York. Of course, fracking technology has advanced since the 1980s, for instance, employing greater pressure and more water.

But the controversy does prove another industry talking point: fracking has been around for a long, long time—since at least 1947—and is nothing new, technologically speaking. Technology to deal with the potential contamination from fracking, however, has not kept pace.

Image: © David Biello