EPA Investigates Fracking Impacts

Oct 4th, 2011 | By | Category: Environmental Management

Ongoing concerns about the potential impact of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on drinking water have pushed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to investigate public concerns in light of the growing importance of natural gas in the clean energy future of the United States.  On 23 June 2011, the EPA announced plans to conduct a draft study of the impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water by conducting case studies at seven U.S. sites.

The scope of the study will involve analyzing the full process of hydraulic fracturing, from the acquisition of water to the mixing of chemicals and finally to the ultimate treatment and disposal of produced water.  The sites were identified, prioritized, and selected based on factors such as the site’s proximity to human population and drinking water supplies, evidence of impaired water quality, health and environmental concerns, and unique geologic or hydrologic features.

What Is Fracking?

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the primary method for stimulating wells to recover natural gas and oil from geologic formations. The U.S. Department of Energy projects that by 2020, approximately 20 percent of the United States’ total gas supply will be a product of shale gas, collected from states such as Texas, Wyoming, and Pennsylvania.

Hydraulic fracturing fluids, which are commonly composed of water and chemical additives, are pumped into a geologic formation at high pressure to maximize the extraction of underground natural gas and oil resources.  What to do with the resulting hydraulic fracturing fluid is a significant issue for industry at both the state and federal levels, as concerns on how to protect limited water resources throughout the United States continue to gain the attention of citizens, lawmakers, and industry.

Case Studies

The EPA has classified the seven sites into prospective case studies and retrospective case studies.  The prospective case studies will take place in the Haynesville Shale in DeSoto Parish, Louisiana, and the Marcellus Shale in Washington County, Pennsylvania.  The purpose of the prospective case study sites is to give the EPA the ability to  monitor key aspects of the hydraulic fracturing process at future sites.

The remaining sites will be classified as retrospective case studies. At these sites, EPA will investigate reported drinking water contamination and nearby hydraulic fracturing operations.  The retrospective sites will be located in the Bakken Shale in Killdeer and Dunn Counties in North Dakota; the Barnett Shale in Wise and Denton Counties in Texas; the Marcellus Shale in Bradford and Susquehanna Counties in Pennsylvania; the Marcellus Shale in Washington County; and the Raton Basin in Las Animas County in Colorado.

Fracking Regulations

Authorized by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010, the EPA’s investigation is the first federal study that will analyze the impact of hydraulic fracturing at specific sites. The results of this study could provide the basis for future federal regulation of the natural gas industry.

Although some natural gas–producing states have state regulations in place to protect groundwater, the absence of federal regulation has been a point of controversy for critics of the EPA’s response to alleged groundwater contamination.  The current federal regulatory scheme excludes most hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).  Only hydraulic fracturing that uses diesel fuel is subject to the SDWA and is required to receive prior authorization from the EPA’s Underground Injection Control (UIC) program.

The EPA study has the potential to influence future regulation of the natural gas industry, as any new regulation or amendment to existing federal programs would also impact state regulations.

Timing

The EPA expects the study to begin as early as the fall of 2011 and to continue at most sites at least through 2012.

About the Author

Rachel Degenhardt is a lawyer and regulatory consultant at Enhesa in Washington, D.C., U.S.A.  She specializes in U.S. law and has experience working with EHS issues in both the private and public sectors.  Ms. Degenhardt has written audit protocols for several U.S. states, and she monitors regulatory developments throughout the United States. Before joining Enhesa, she worked for Tucker, Taunton, Snyder & Slade as a litigation associate and was involved primarily in environmental litigation and federal practice in Houston, Texas, U.S.A.

The EPA’s progress in implementing the fracking study is being tracked by Enhesa, a global consultancy specializing in monitoring and analysis of environmental, health, and safety regulations. Enhesa is also tracking other developments in the oil and gas industry.

Image: Hydraulic Fracturing from the U.S. EPA.

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2 Comments to “EPA Investigates Fracking Impacts”

  1. Vince says:

    Why is the EPA wasting money on this study? I’ll answer the rhetorical question myself. It’s another opportunity for a Federal power grab to further control the fossil fuel industry. As the article says “some natural gas–producing states have state regulations in place to protect groundwater”, so leave it up to the states to decide how to regulate a local issue. It is not an issue of overiding national importance that must involve the EPA. Because France outlawed fracking (can you say nuclear power), is not a good reason for the US to do it. When has France been the leader in anything?

  2. Susan says:

    As the Prime Minister of France outlawed Fracking in December of 2010, why are we not looking at the information that he used to come to the conclusion that it should be outlawed and quit wasting time?

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