EPA Plans Detailed Study of Hydraulic Fracturing

March 1, 2010
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is planning to study the impact of hydraulic fracturing and the risks is poses for surface and ground water.

James Laughlin, Managing Editor

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is planning to study the impact of hydraulic fracturing and the risks is poses for surface and ground water. The study was prompted, in part, because of growing interest in mining gas reserves in the Marcellus Shale formation that extends from Ohio and West Virginia northeast into Pennsylvania and southern New York.

Geologists estimate that the entire Marcellus Shale formation contains between 168 trillion to 516 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Although the formation is exposed at the ground surface in some locations, it is as deep as 7,000 feet or more below the ground along the Pennsylvania border in the Delaware River valley. Drilling activity is expected to focus on areas where the Marcellus shale is deeper than 2,000 feet.

Gas formations are typically hundreds of feet below drinking water aquifers and gas industry proponents claim no instances of ground water contamination have been linked conclusively to the fracturing process.

However, a number of the water contamination claims around the country have been blamed on surface spills of fracturing fluids or linked to defective well construction that allowed natural gas or drilling fluids to leak into water supplies.

Hydraulic fracturing involves drilling into a formation and injecting water mixed with sand and chemicals under high pressure. The mixture cracks open the shale while the sand holds open the fractures, allowing the natural gas to flow more freely to the surface.

The chemicals used in Frac water make up a small part of the overall mix — less than 0.5 percent by volume — but often include hazardous substances such as acids and compounds found in cleaners and antifreeze.

“Our research will be designed to answer questions about the potential impact of hydraulic fracturing on human health and the environment,” said Dr. Paul T. Anastas, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development. “The study will be conducted through a transparent, peer-reviewed process, with significant stakeholder input.”

Hydraulic fracturing is not subject to federal drinking water laws but is regulated by state laws. The disposal and storage of all water and fracturing fluids that come back out of a gas well — called produced water — is covered by federal law. Several interesting new systems are being developed to treat that water, which is typically high in dissolved salts.

EPA is in the very early stages of designing its hydraulic fracturing research program. The agency has set aside $1.9 million for the study this year with more funds possible next year.

The agency is proposing the process begin with (1) defining research questions and identifying data gaps; (2) conducting a process for stakeholder input and research prioritization; (3) with this input, developing a detailed study design that will undergo external peer-review, leading to (4) implementing the planned research studies.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee started its own investigation of hydraulic fracturing earlier this year, asking for data from companies such as Halliburton and Schlumberger.

The proposed legislation, known as the Frac Act, would require drilling companies to apply for fracturing permits and reveal the contents of the fluids they use. A spokesman for one of the bill sponsors, Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-NY, said the congressman is pleased with EPA’s study plan, but will continue to push the bill forward.

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