EPA launches hydraulic fracturing study

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor
WASHINGTON, DC, Mar. 18 – The US Environmental Protection Agency initiated a comprehensive study of hydraulic fracturing to determine whether the tight shale gas production technology potentially could have an adverse impact on ground and surface water supplies.

Responding to language in its fiscal 2010 budget, EPA said on Mar. 18 that it would reallocate $1.9 million for the peer-reviewed study this year and request funding to continue it in fiscal 2011, which begins on Oct. 1, 2010.

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

Oil and gas associations welcomed the news. The American Petroleum Institute said it expects EPA’s study to confirm what 60 years of experience and investigation have shown: that hydraulic fracturing is a safe and well understood technology for producing oil and gas.

“We hope the agency will provide ample opportunity for stakeholder comment and participation,” API said. “Our members are experts on well construction and development, and on safe and effective hydraulic fracturing operations.”

Natural Gas Supply Association President R. Skip Horvath said he believes EPA’s study will show that concerns about groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing are unfounded as long as producers comply with numerous existing and stringent state regulations.

“Production from shale formations is the nation’s fastest growing source of natural gas, contributing to an unprecedented 39% increase in the estimated size of the gas resource base since 2006,” Horvath said. “In Pennsylvania alone, the production of natural gas from shale has created 50,000 new jobs in 2008 and 2009.”

Opportunity, responsibility
Regina Hopper, president of America’s Natural Gas Alliance. Said the gas community looks forward to working with EPA.

“With the extraordinary opportunity presented by our nation’s gas abundance comes the responsibility to be good stewards of the land,” Hopper said. “Our members take this responsibility seriously, and we look forward to sharing with EPA the extensive work done at every step of the gas extraction process.”

Lee O. Fuller, executive director of Energy in Depth, said he welcomed another study on this issue. Energy in Depth is an oil and gas educational organization.

“Hydraulic fracturing is one of the US oil and gas industry’s crowning achievements, enabling us to produce energy supplies at enormous depths with surgical precision and unrivaled environmental safety records,” Fuller said. “And, simply put, new innovations are making these technologies better and better by the day, a fact widely recognized by the agencies that regulate hydraulic fracturing in energy-producing states,” he maintained.

Groups and federal lawmakers seeking heavier regulation of the technology also welcomed the announcement.

“An earlier EPA study into hydraulic fracturing, conducted during the Bush administration, was widely discredited,” said Jessica Ennis, a legislative associate at the Earthjustice environmental organization. “By committing to a serious, peer-reviewed study and expediting the necessary funds, [administrator] Lisa Jackson’s EPA is demonstrated that this issue is indeed an agency priority, as well as it should be.”

‘Significant step’
US Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), who introduced a bill with Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey (D-NY) that would regulate hydraulic fracturing under the Safe Drinking Water Act, also said that EPA’s new study would be the first comprehensive effort. The agency’s 2004 study stopped short of the full scientific assessment and independent assessment which is required, she said.

“This study may be a challenge, given that companies are not currently required to disclose the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluids,” said DeGette. “But it will be a significant step in ensuring that our nation’s drinking water supply is protected.”

Hinchey said that he was pleased that EPA decided to begin a study examining risks hydraulic fracturing pose to drinking water supplies in New York and across the country. He said that it was an important and necessary step “since EPA’s 2004 study on the matter was marred by biased data influenced by senior officials in the previous administration.”

EPA said that it is in the very early stages of designing a hydraulic fracturing program. It is a proposing a process to define research questions and identify data gaps. Next, there would be a process gathering comments and identifying priorities. This would lead to development of a detailed study design for external peer review, leading to implementation of the planned research studies.

To support initial planning and to guide the plan’s development, the agency said that it is seeking suggestions and comments from its Science Advisory Board, an independent, external federal advisory committee. EPA said that it has asked the board’s Environmental Engineering Committee to evaluate and provide advice on the agency’s planned approach. It said that it would use this advise and “extensive stakeholder input” to guide the study’s design.
Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com

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