Energy policy — oil and gas: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to pony up $1.9 million to study frac’ing

A picture named hydraulicfracturing.jpg

Update: Here’s the release from the EPA:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it will conduct a comprehensive research study to investigate the potential adverse impact that hydraulic fracturing may have on water quality and public health. Natural gas plays a key role in our nation’s clean energy future and the process known as hydraulic fracturing is one way of accessing that vital resource. There are concerns that hydraulic fracturing may impact ground water and surface water quality in ways that threaten human health and the environment. To address these concerns and strengthen our clean energy future and in response to language inserted into the fiscal year 2010 Appropriations Act, EPA is re-allocating $1.9 million for this comprehensive, peer-reviewed study for FY10 and requesting funding for FY11 in the president’s budget proposal.

“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.”

EPA is in the very early stages of designing a hydraulic fracturing research program. The agency is proposing the process begin with (1) defining research questions and identifying data gaps; (2) conducting a robust 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.

To support this initial planning phase and guide the development of the study plan, the agency is seeking suggestions and comments from the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB)—an independent, external federal advisory committee. The agency has requested that the Environmental Engineering Committee (EEC) of the SAB evaluate and provide advice on EPA’s proposed approach. The agency will use this advice and extensive stakeholder input to guide the design of the study.

Hydraulic fracturing is a process that drills vertical and horizontal cracks underground that help withdraw gas, or oil, from coalbeds, shale and other geological formations. While each site is unique, in general, the process involves vertical and horizontal drilling, taking water from the ground, injecting fracturing fluids and sands into the formation, and withdrawing gas and separating and managing the leftover waters.

A federal register notice was issued March 18, announcing a SAB meeting April 7-8.

More information on hydraulic fracturing: http://www.epa.gov/ogwdw000/uic/wells_hydrofrac.html

More information on the SAB and the supporting documents: http://www.epa.gov/sab

From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (John Colson):

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on Thursday that it is launching a probe into whether the procedure, known as hydraulic fracturing or “frac’ing,” is contaminating aquifers that supply drinking water. The study, expected to be finished by 2012, is to examine the industry’s effect on groundwater, surface water, human health and the environment generally…

“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.”[…]

The industry has long maintained that in the 60 or so years since the practice became common, there has not been a single documented case of water contamination attributed to the procedure. Critics of the industry, however, say no cases have been found because no one looked very hard, and because the practice has been exempted from the national Safe Drinking Water Act since 2005. The exemption came at about the same time that new techniques in drilling and frac’ing, as well as rising prices for natural gas, lead to a significant increase in drilling activity around the U.S., including Western Colorado.

The industry also has long maintained that the chemicals used in the formulation of “frac’ing fluids” are not actually secret, and that they are available on various websites, including the site maintained by the Garfield County Oil & Gas Liaison office (www.garfield-county.com, under “County Departments”). Industry critics, however, have been skeptical of that claim, arguing that the lists that are publicly available are not actually complete.

In Garfield County, Ron Galterio of the Battlement Concerned Citizens group called the announcement “welcome news” in light of the BCC’s “great concern about the hydraulic fracturing process, the many unknown and toxic chemicals used, and the long-term effects on ground water.”[…]

“Many opponents of hydraulic fracturing in Western Colorado suffer from 90/10 syndrome: 90 percent of their information is usually less than 10 percent accurate,” said David Ludlam of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association. “As a result,” he continued, “[we] look forward to working with the EPA demonstrating that technological breakthroughs in hydraulic fracturing can continue to be safely applied as Western Colorado develops its tremendous natural gas reserves. An EPA data-driven analysis that results in fact-based decision-making; it might just be the inoculation our industry needs against an ongoing plague of misinformation.”

More oil and gas coverage here and here.

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