EPA Fracturing Study Moves Forward – Slowly

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its “Study of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing on Drinking Water Resources: Progress Report” in late December. The progress report depicts a complex study that is making slow progress.

EPA also reports that the study has added additional public participation through:

  • Technical roundtables and workshops.
  • A large and diverse panel of nominees for the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) panel on hydraulic fracturing.
  • Federal Register requests for information on advances in industry practices and technologies.

The study encompasses the full lifecycle of water used in hydraulic fracturing: water acquisition, chemical mixing, well injection, flowback and produced water, and wastewater treatment and disposal.

Congress asked the EPA for this study in 2010, and the final report is not due until 2014.

Congress asked the EPA for this study in 2010, and the final report is not due until 2014. This interim report is lengthy – over 250 pages – but lacks information about how far various study elements have progressed.

The report also lacks interim research results and provides no information about what will be in the final report.

The EPA press release states, "While this progress report outlines the framework for the final study, it does not draw conclusions about the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources, which will be made in the final study."

Study Status

The progress report suggests that most of the study elements have started but may be far from complete. In addition, EPA has modified or eliminated a few planned studies.

To date:

EPA currently is evaluating well construction and hydraulic fracturing procedures at 333 wells drilled by nine different operators in major shale gas basins. This effort will assess the effectiveness of current industry practices to contain liquids and gases during and after hydraulic fracturing.

EPA is collecting and evaluating data on the chemical composition of hydraulic fracturing fluids using the FracFocus chemical disclosure registry and information that EPA requested on 25,000 fracturing treatments conducted by nine service companies.

The addition of FracFocus data to the study reflects the importance of industry-provided data. The FracFocus website, hosted by the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, currently holds data on about 35,000 wells.

EPA is analyzing water samples and modeling hypothetical scenarios to evaluate the potential for hazardous chemicals occurring in public water supplies located downstream from facilities that treat hydraulic-fracturing wastewater.

Also in progress is computer modeling of potential ways in which hydraulic fracturing chemicals or reservoir fluids could migrate from shale gas formations to aquifers.

Other computer modeling will predict the impacts of water used for hydraulic fracturing on drinking water supplies in the upper Colorado River and Susquehanna River basins.

EPA also is compiling data on the chemistry and toxicology of over 1,000 chemicals used for hydraulic fracturing.

EPA is compiling information on the causes and volumes of spills of hydraulic fracturing and wastewater fluids using state and national databases of chemical spills.

EPA has completed multiple rounds of retrospective water sampling at five case study locations in Colorado, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Texas. EPA collected multiple samples from 70 domestic water wells, 15 monitoring wells and 13 surface water sources near previously completed wells and expects to collect additional samples in the future.

The progress report does not provide any sampling results or water analyses.

  • EPA plans prospective case studies, collecting water samples before, during and after hydraulic fracturing operations, at locations not yet chosen. A planned study in De Soto Parish, La., has been dropped.
  • EPA has decided to not study the interactions between hydraulic fracturing fluids and various rock formations, noting that the U.S. Department of Energy National Energy Technology Laboratory and Pennsylvania State University are conducting similar work.
Public Participation

EPA’s hydraulic fracturing study is controversial with both proponents and opponents of hydraulic fracturing – and perhaps in response to highly charged public opinions, EPA recently announced additional opportunities for stakeholder engagement.

EPA stated goals of this enhanced engagement process are to improve public understanding of the study; ensure that the EPA is up to date on advances in industry practices and technologies; and obtain timely and constructive feedback on ongoing research projects.

Stakeholders and technical experts are being engaged through the following activities:

  • Technical roundtables, with invited experts from diverse stakeholder groups to discuss the work under way to answer key research questions and identify possible topics for technical workshops. Five roundtables were completed in November, and additional ones may be held in 2013.
  • Technical workshops, with experts invited to participate in more in-depth discussions and share expertise on discrete technical topics relevant to the study.
  • Information requests through Nov. 9, 2012, Federal Register notice, requesting that the public submit relevant studies and data. Additional data requests are planned for 2013.
  • Periodic meetings of the EPA Scientific Advisory Board, Hydraulic Fracturing Advisory Panel. A panel meeting is planned in March to review the 2012 progress report.
Technical Roundtables

EPA hosted five half-day roundtable meetings last November, addressing water acquisition, chemical mixing, well injection, flowback and produced waters, and wastewater treatment.

For each roundtable, EPA presented its work to experts nominated by the public and asked for input on specific topics to be included in future workshops. Summaries of the November meetings will be available at the EPA website.

Topics for future roundtables will be announced in 2013.

Technical Workshops

Technical workshops, which are expected to allow more detailed discussion than occurred in the roundtables, are planned in 2013. For each meeting experts will be solicited, and each workshop will be followed by a public webinar.

Planned technical workshops are:

  • Analytical Chemical Methods, Feb. 25, at the EPA Campus in Research Triangle Park, N.C. (Nominations of experts were invited from Dec. 11 through Jan. 8.)
  • Water Acquisition: Assessing impacts through modeling and other means (target date April).
  • Wastewater Treatment and Modeling (target date April).
  • Well Construction/Operation and Subsurface Modeling (target date early June).
  • Case Studies (target date early June).
Science Advisory Board (SAB) Participation

The SAB panel on hydraulic fracturing, which will be responsible for reviewing the interim and final reports, should be diverse and balanced.

In late December over 140 experts were chosen as candidates for the panel. After a public comment period EPA will designate a smaller panel that will begin work in March with a review of the 2012 progress report.

Candidates represent the diversity of expertise and experience in hydraulic fracturing, including: academia, environment service companies, state regulatory agencies, federal government scientists, oil and natural gas exploration and production companies, and oilfield service companies.

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Policy Watch

Policy Watch - Edie Allison
Edie Allison began as the Director of the AAPG Geoscience and Energy Office in Washington D.C. in 2012.

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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