First results due in 2012

EPA Frac Study to Focus on Water Impact

Maureen Moses
Maureen Moses

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced plans to undertake a study of hydraulic fracturing, or fracing, to determine its impacts on surface, ground and drinking water resources.

The study is expected to run from 2010 to 2015, and initial results are expected in 2012.

EPA plans to address research questions about the materials used during hydraulic fracturing and how they affect the surrounding communities and ecosystems.

The study will be led and implemented by the EPA’s Office of Research and Development. Its goal is to characterize the hydraulic fracturing lifecycle. Doing this will extend the study beyond the fracing processes itself, to the interactions of the frac fluids with water and the environment after injection.

The EPA also will determine if the large quantity of water used for fracing negatively impacts water resource availability for ecosystems and recreational uses.

Exposure

Although producers have been doing hydraulic fracturing for decades, its role in extracting natural gas from shale has made the process more visible to the public and Congress.

Last summer the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee heard testimony on hydraulic fracturing from industry and environmental officials. Many representatives were excited by the potential to increase domestic production of natural gas stored in vast American shale beds. However, there remained concern about the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing.

An earlier EPA study of hydraulic fracturing, conducted in 2004, determined that frac fluids posed no significant risk to drinking water. In 2005 Congress exempted hydraulic fracturing from federal regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The current EPA study on hydraulic fracturing was triggered during the appropriations cycle for the fiscal 2010 budget. Language was added to the spending bill urging the EPA to conduct a transparent and peer-reviewed study, citing “committee concern about the risks posed to drinking water.”

The committee also questioned the validity of sources used in past EPA reports on the subject.

In the scoping materials released for the study, the EPA recognized there could be substantial variability in local geology and chemical usage between study sites. Three topics will be addressed:

  • The hydraulic fracturing process.
  • Relationships of those processes to drinking water resources.
  • Potential health and environmental risks.
Wyoming’s Example

One of the most contentious parts of the fracing safety debate are the chemicals used by corporations during hydraulic fracturing. Identifying chemical constituents in frac fluids is a primary goal of the study, but the EPA will be undertaking work to identify how these constituents may alter when interacting with the surrounding geology and biota.

Despite the findings of the 2004 EPA study and existing state regulations, safety concerns still exist in the minds of the public and lawmakers. The increasing possibility of federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing also has caused concern in industry and the states, which typically argue that existing state regulations have been sufficient.

The Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, comprised of the governors of its member states, called on Congress in early 2009 to not remove the exemption for hydraulic fracturing under the Safe Drinking Water Act, saying, “the regulation of oil and gas exploration and production activities, including hydraulic fracturing, has traditionally been the province of the states.”

As example, in late April the Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune editorial board threw its support behind Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D), who insists that fracing be regulated by the states and that industry clearly disclose frac fluid constituents.

Wyoming reportedly was to issue its disclosure rules in June. But, according to the paper, “(industry officials) should be starting to realize that the days are numbered of having the state just take their word that chemicals used in fracing are safe.

“The full disclosure advocated by environmental groups isn’t likely to happen, either, but Freudenthal … is right on target when he says a compromise is in order.”

The discussions between industry and regulators – both state and federal – have only just begun.

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