Hydraulic Fracturing Spawns New Regs

Shale gas production is booming throughout the United States and the world due to the success of the cutting edge – and in some corners, controversial – drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing.

The concept of the technique used in hydraulic fracturing has been around for nearly a century, but the technology for effective implementation was developed in the 1990s.

Years of federal and private funding of research and development into hydraulic fracturing technology produced a viable technique to effectively fracture rock – primarily shale formations – to allow trapped natural gas to flow more freely to the wellhead.

Hydraulic fracturing techniques have been a tremendous success in the United States and have contributed a boon to domestic U.S. production. Previously unattainable natural gas reserves trapped in impermeable shale formations are now contributing to reduced dependence on imported petroleum products.

Hydraulic fracturing is used in 17 states, with the first being implemented in Texas in 1998.

By 2009, the amount of natural gas produced from hydraulic fracturing was 10 times production in 2000.

In 2008, residents of Pavillion, Wyo., worried that their drinking water had been contaminated from the fluids used in hydraulic fracturing. Their concerns spawned an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) investigation into the source of the drinking water contamination.

Halfway across the United States, in Pennsylvania, additional claims of drinking water contamination from the practice of hydraulic fracturing have been made.

The public concern over hydraulic fracturing has driven the Obama administration to request a $13 million increase in the proposed budget for fiscal year 2013 for a joint assessment between the U.S. Geological Survey, Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy of the environmental impacts associated with hydraulic fracturing. 

An Intense Debate 

Some of the richest shale gas reserves are found in the Marcellus Shale formation in the northeastern United States, which encompasses a densely populated portion. Hydraulic fracturing of the Marcellus Shale is prevalent in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.

New York, which holds some of the largest quantities of Marcellus Shale natural gas, maintains a drilling moratorium.

The hydraulic fracturing debate is exceedingly intense in New York, however, because eight million residents in New York City and millions elsewhere in New York and New Jersey draw their drinking water supply from the largest unfiltered watershed in the United States. This watershed consists of the Catskill/Delaware Watersheds and the Croton Watershed – both located in southeastern New York in the heart of the Marcellus Shale.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he would like to remove the moratorium because he believes with proper oversight, hydraulic fracturing will not contaminate drinking water supplies.

Thus New York faces an intense quandary – how to reap the economic benefits of oil and gas production while calming concerns of contaminating a voluminous, inexpensive and pristine drinking water supply for the largest U.S. population center.

New York is in the process of re-evaluating its regulatory and oversight system. Currently, the state does not have enough employees to effectively enforce the regulatory and oversight system to deal with what could be a rapid increase in hydraulic fracturing if the ban is lifted.

The state can look at what other states are doing and what role the federal government might play.

States with lots of hydraulic fracturing have a wide range of regulations.

At the federal level, the EPA is investigating concerns about air and water quality covered by public law and considering revising rules for hydraulic fracturing.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has prepared draft rules for hydraulic fracturing on public lands. There is growing debate about differences in rules and regulations – and about how regulations should be implemented to be effective and efficient. 

Legislative Action 

A comparison of state and federal regulations for chemical disclosure, storage and disposal of waste, casing integrity, water source and testing of nearby water sources is provided in on the next page. Federal agencies – especially the EPA and BLM – are developing plans for oversight, investigation and regulation, with the EPA planning a release this year of a study investigating the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources.

In addition, the EPA currently is evaluating the storage and disposal of waste from hydraulic fracturing – but at this point formal regulation lies with the state or other local government entities.

The BLM released a draft of regulations in early February to apply to hydraulic fracturing on federal lands for public comment. The National Ground Water Association (NGWA) recently released a set of recommendations of regulations regarding water use and water quality related to hydraulic fracturing.

Two congressional bills, the Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act of 2011 (H.R.1084) introduced by U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colorado) and the FRAC Act (S.587) introduced by U.S. Sen. Robert Casey (D-Pennsylvania), are included in the comparison although they address only the issue of chemical disclosure.

Support for the legislation comes primarily from members from states where citizens are concerned about water contamination from hydraulic fracturing. These measures have little chance of passage in 2012, but it is likely Congress will continue to debate oversight and regulations of hydraulic fracturing. 

Trends of Note 

The compilation of hydraulic fracturing guidelines into a single table yields some interesting trends. With regards to storing waste, the states with water contamination concerns (i.e., Colorado, Pennsylvania and Wyoming) have stricter guidelines than states without water contamination concerns.

The regulations for the disposal of hydraulic fracturing flowback fluids are similar for the different states and federal agencies:

  • The BLM draft proposes the strictest regulations regarding a water source for hydraulic fracturing injection while the regulations for the states are less strict and similar to each other.
  • NGWA recommended stricter regulations for the testing of drinking water sources compared to most states.
  • Everyone calls for the disclosure of the chemicals involved in hydraulic fracturing, but they all allow proprietary chemicals to remain secret, except for a medical emergency. Time will tell if the chemical producers will be forced to disclose all of their ingredients.

An often-overlooked yet significant factor in the regulation of hydraulic fracturing is the geology of the subsurface in which the fracturing is occurring.

Next month: A look at the role of geology in hydraulic fracturing, and the impacts that the differing geologic structure and hydrologic environment have on regulations for major shale gas producing plays across the United States.

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Policy Watch

Policy Watch - Aaron Rodriguez

Aaron Rodriguez is the AAPG/AGI spring intern at the American Geosciences Institute. He is a student at Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah.

Policy Watch is a monthly column of the EXPLORER written by the director of AAPG's  Geoscience and Energy Office in Washington, D.C. *The first article appeared in February 2006 under the name "Washington Watch" and the column name was changed to "Policy Watch" in January 2013 to broaden the subject matter to a more global view.

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Storing Waste (Flowback Water) graphic