EPA Investigates Fracking ImpactsOct 4th, 2011 | By Rachel Degenhardt | 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.
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.
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.
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.