Hydraulic Fracturing


AWWA white paper

AWWA's Water and Hydraulic Fracturing white paper addresses concerns about hydraulic fracturing – commonly called “fracking” – and its potential risks to water sources. Produced in response to growing public awareness and concern about hydraulic fracturing and related activities in the energy industry, the paper aims to help water utilities understand and communicate about fracking processes, risks and regulations.

Created under the direction of AWWA’s Water Utility Council, the document describes different aspects of the oil and gas development life cycle, the potential for surface water and groundwater contamination, water quantity and use issues, and concerns about the possibility of earthquakes resulting from gas development activity.

Potential risks

Oil and Gas Development (including hydraulic fracturing) is an industrial activity, and like all industrial activities comes with some risks including accidents, accidental spills, dumping and illegal disposal of wastes and others. Many of these risks are site-specific and cannot be generalized to all locations and situations. These risks include potential for groundwater contamination, potential for surface water contamination, water quantity and water use issues and induced seismicity. Other risks may be present in some areas.

Risk management

AWWA believes that the risks associated with oil and gas production – including hydraulic fracturing – can be managed via prudent and reasonable protections implemented through a combination of state and federal regulations, best practices, and monitoring.  Studies to better identify and quantify risks associated with hydraulic fracturing and associated oil and gas activities are underway.


additional information

AWWA policy overview

AWWA and its member utilities want to ensure that protection of our sources of drinking water remains the highest priority in this arena. That protection applies to our sources of drinking water both below and above ground. Once a groundwater aquifer has been contaminated, cleaning up that contamination is time-consuming and extremely expensive. The most effective and least expensive approach for dealing with groundwater contamination is to prevent the contamination from occurring in the first place.

While a lot of attention has been focused on the potential for hydraulic fracturing to contaminate underground water sources, potential contamination of surface waters is of equal concern to AWWA and its utility members. Some of the water/chemical mixtures used in fracking wells comes back to the surface. Contamination can consequently occur in several ways: leakage from impoundments holding fracking waters, rainfall causing fracking fluids to wash into source waters, and fracking wastewaters being taken to wastewater treatment facilities that either are not equipped to deal with such wastes or that don’t know what is in the fluid mixtures.

While evidence of hydraulic fracturing contaminating community water systems is sparse at this time, evidence of such contamination is emerging. For example, it appears that at least some surface water systems in Western Pennsylvania appear to have been impacted by hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale region. Monitoring data from community water systems in this region show a linkage between areas where hydraulic fracturing is taking place and drinking water contamination. Specifically, disinfection by-product precursors in source waters due to the disposal of oil and gas extraction wastewaters through industrial and municipal wastewater systems have been identified. 

Protecting sources of drinking water does not have to mean stopping domestic energy development or halting local economic development. It does require planning and prudent preventive measures, such as the development of hydraulic fracturing regulations and/or use of best management practices by oil and gas developers to reduce the potential for groundwater or surface water contamination.

Joint policy statement

The American Water Works Association, the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies and the National Association of Water Companies have published a joint policy statement on hydraulic fracturing (PDF), focused on the protection of drinking water sources and supplies.

AWWA has also submitted comments on actions by EPA and other federal agencies regarding hydraulic fracturing.

Regulation of hydraulic fracturing

Oil and gas development is regulated through numerous state and federal environmental laws. The majority of regulations on oil and gas development, including hydraulic fracturing, are at the state level. The regulations vary widely from state to state, and some have provisions requiring specific engineering and construction standards, chemical disclosure of hydraulic fracturing fluids, setback distances from water bodies, financial liability requirements, and many others.

On the federal level, oil and gas development (including hydraulic fracturing) is subject to some laws and is currently exempt from others. The 2005 Energy Policy Act specifically exempted hydraulic fracturing from regulation under the Underground Injection Control Program (part of the Safe Drinking Water Act) except when diesel fuels are used as part of the hydraulic fracturing fluids. In February 2014, USEPA issued final guidance under Class II of the Underground Injection Control program (UIC) defining what constitutes a “diesel fuel” for underground Injection control permitting purposes as well as procedures and recommendations for EPA regions to administer a permitting program for wells utilizing diesel fuels. Current regulatory authority allows for UIC permits for hydraulic fracturing only when diesel fuels are used as part of the hydraulic fracturing fluids.

Over the course of 2012 and 2013, USEPA issued a series of standards regarding air emissions from oil and gas operations under the Clean Air Act, which when implemented may substantially reduce the emissions of methane, VOCs and other components into the atmosphere as a result of fracking operations and related processing, storage, and transmission operations.

Disposal of hydraulic fracturing wastes is regulated either through the Underground Injection Control program (when the waste is being disposed of through underground injection) or through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (when treated through industrial or municipal facilities and returned to water bodies). Both the UIC and the NPDES programs have provisions for state primacy, and therefore are administered through state agencies in most states.

Proposed regulations

Bureau of Land Management rulemaking
BLM in March 2015 adopted a final rule (PDF) to regulate fracking on public and tribal lands. It stemmed from a May 2012 proposed rule (revised in 2013) that attracted 1.5 million public comments. The final rule sets standards to protect groundwater by requiring a validation of well integrity and strong cement barriers between the wellbore and water zones through which the wellbore passes. It also addresses wastewater disposal and public disclosure of chemicals in fracking fluids. 

Other USEPA Potential Regulations
USEPA has also announced plans to develop effluent / pretreatment standards for the disposal of hydraulic fracturing fluids under the Clean Water Act, although the details of this possible proposal are not yet clear.  In May 2014, EPA issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking requesting public input on how EPA could develop chemical disclosure and/or chemical information reporting under the Toxic Substances Control Act.  AWWA submitted comments (PDF) on strategies that EPA could use and potential roadblocks that EPA should avoid.

Recent developments

Federal and state authorities and public interest organizations have been addressing hydraulic fracturing in various ways, ranging from research to regulation. Recent activities are reported here.

EPA’s resource page describing ongoing and planned activities related to hydraulic fracturing, including a description of EPA’s ongoing hydraulic fracturing study.

State-level activities
Much of the regulatory activity for both hydraulic fracturing as well as oil and gas development in general has been and continues to be on the state level. The following state resource pages provide information both about hydraulic fracturing in general and state-specific resources. Many states for which there is oil and gas exploration within the state have similar resources available.

Additional resources
Resources for the Future – A Review of Shale Gas Regulations by State
Resources for the Future recently published a series of maps comparing and contrasting shale gas regulations, including those regarding hydraulic fracturing operations, across 31 states. These states represent where shale gas resource extraction is currently happening or is likely to happen in the future. The maps cover regulations relating to well siting and development, drilling, drilling/fracking wastewater disposal, well closing, inspections, chemical disclosure and other regulatory angles. This resource can be used to identify the current regulatory structure in a utility’s state and surrounding states, as well as a comparison between current state regulations and industry best practices.

US Department of Energy study plan for Monitoring of Air, Land, and Water Resources during Shale Gas Production (PDF)
Study plan for an effort by the Department of Energy to conduct comprehensive environmental monitoring on a test shale gas site. Includes contact information for anyone interested in more information about the study.

FracFocus Chemical Disclosure Registry
FracFocus is a joint effort by the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission to voluntarily disclose chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process (aimed primarily at assisting local residents in identifying chemicals used in and near their communities).