By OGJ editors
WASHINGTON, Sept. 3 -- Industry officials praised the key findings of a draft report by the US Environmental Protection Agency that found hydraulic fracturing of coalbed methane wells does not contaminate underground drinking water sources. The public may offer comments on the study until Oct. 28.
Hydraulic fracturing is a commonly used oil field process in which fluid, water, or sometimes diesel fuel, is pumped into the rock at a high pressure, creating cracks that allow the oil and gas to flow to the well. Proponents say the process is safe and environmentally benign; critics charge that it has the potential to contaminate limited drinking water sources and diminish aquifers.
Although thousands of natural gas wells drilled in coal seams are hydraulically fractured annually, "EPA did not find 'persuasive evidence' that any drinking water wells had been contaminated by hydraulic fracturing related to coal seam natural gas production. They did not find that evidence because it does not exist," said Christine Hansen, executive director of the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission.
Environmental groups in Alabama, Colorado, Virginia, and Wyoming argue that the practice may damage aquifers and cause related groundwater contamination.
The US Geological Survey said 7.5% of total US natural gas production comes from coalbed methane.
EPA said that although the threat to public health from hydraulic fracturing appears low, "it may be feasible and prudent of industry to remove any threat whatsoever from injection of fluids. The use of diesel fuel in fracturing fluids by some companies introduces the majority of constituents concerns" over underground water contamination, EPA noted. "Water-based alternatives exist and from an environmental perspective, these water-based products are preferable."
EPA's study focused only on hydraulic fracturing of coalbed methane wells. The agency said it did not address all hydraulic fracturing practices for several reasons. First, it noted a recent court decision regarding government jurisdiction over the process was specific to coalbed methane production. Second, coalbed methane wells tend to be shallower and closer to underground drinking water sources than conventional oil and gas production wells (thousands of feet below ground surface as opposed to tens of thousands below the surface.). Finally, EPA said it has not heard concerns from citizens regarding any other type of hydraulic fracturing.
The study also did not address other concerns surrounding coalbed methane production, such as groundwater removal or production water discharge.
EPA's oversight over hydraulic fracturing is limited. The agency's Underground Injection Control program is authorized by the Safe Drinking Water Act to protect public health from threats to underground sources of drinking water that result from underground injections.
However, the law does not authorize EPA to regulate oil and gas production practices. Green groups want EPA to have a stronger enforcement role over the procedure.
A pending Senate provision directs the agency to complete a study on the effects of hydraulic fracturing on underground drinking water sources (OGJ Online, Apr. 26, 2002.) EPA's draft report says that further study is unnecessary. But industry officials said it is too soon to say whether Congress will ask that the issue be revisited.
"It's a difficult question to answer," said Bill Whitsitt, president of the Domestic Petroleum Council. "The implications of the study are very positive, but we don't know how broad those implications are."
An IOGCC survey conducted in July showed that 35,000 wells are hydraulically fractured annually in the US, and close to 1million wells have been hydraulically fractured since the technique's inception more than 50 years ago with no documented harm to groundwater.
EPA conducted the study in part due to pending litigation from the Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation, which said hydraulic fracturing contaminated several Alabama drinking water wells. The 11th Circuit Court approved the state's oil and gas program for regulating hydraulic fracturing, rejecting the claim that EPA should have applied more proscriptive safe drinking water regulations instead of allowing for state oversight.
The foundation recently petitioned the US Supreme Court to review the decision.
Other industry views
The American Association of Petroleum Geologists opposes blanket application of federally mandated controls, which create a time-consuming, onerous bureaucratic maze with little useful result. Federal legislation should be encouraged to provide for streamlined permitting of fracturing treatments.
Treatments carried out in isolation from freshwater aquifers should be exempted from Clean Water Act controls, the group said.
Permit procedures for fracturing within aquifer zones (mostly undertaken in support of methane production from coal beds) should be designed on a basin-by-basin and state-by-state basis. "This permitting must bear in mind the wide variety of possible designs of safe fracture treatments, and the geologic relationships of reservoir beds and aquifers unique to each area."