The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last Thursday said it will study the potential risks of a technique used to stimulate production of shale gas -- known as hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracing) -- on water quality and public health. Producers say they are confident that the study -- if conducted objectively -- will show hydrofracing to be safe.
Congress approved funds for the EPA study as part of the fiscal year (FY) 2010 spending bill for Interior, Environment and Related Agencies. The EPA said it is reallocating $1.9 million for the study this year and has requested additional funding in the president's budget proposal for FY 2011.
"Our research will be designed to answer questions about the potential impact of hydraulic fracturing on human health and environment. The study will be conducted through a transparent, peer-reviewed process with significant stakeholder input," said Paul T. Anastas, assistant administrator for the EPA's Office of Research and Development.
The agency said it was in the "very early stages" of designing a hydrofracing research program. It said it expects to begin the process by defining research questions and identifying data gaps; conducting a process for stakeholder input and research prioritization; developing a detailed study design that will undergo external peer-review; and leading to implementing the planned research studies.
As part of the study the EPA said it is seeking comments from the Environmental Engineering Committee of EPA's Science Advisory Board, specifically to evaluate and provide advice on the agency's proposed approach.
The announcement of the EPA study came only a month after the House Energy and Commerce Committee opened an inquiry into the potential health and environmental risks associated with hydrofracing of unconventional natural gas resources (see NGI, Feb. 22).
Reps. Dan Boren (D-OK) and Tim Murphy (R-PA) fired off a recent letter to House Energy and Commerce officials criticizing their decision to investigate the risks associated with hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracing) technology on the environment and public health, saying it was unnecessary and duplicative in light of the EPA study on the same issue.
"It seems likely that much of the information you intend to gather pursuant to your investigation will also be sought, compiled and analyzed by EPA," wrote Boren and Murphy, co-chair of the House Natural Gas Caucus, in a recent letter to House Energy Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Rep. Edward Markey, chairman of Subcommittee on Energy and Environment.
"The natural gas community looks forward to working with the EPA to reaffirm the safety of this long-standing practice," said Regina Hopper, president of America's Natural Gas Alliance. "We are confident that a scientific and data-driven examination will provide policymakers and the public with even greater reassurance of the safety of this practice."
Energy In Depth (EID), a group set up to discuss issues involving independent producers, echoed the sentiment. "We are hopeful and it is our expectation that this study -- if based on objective, scientific analysis -- will serve as an opportunity to highlight the host of steps taken at every well site that make certain groundwater is properly protected," said Lee Fuller, executive director of EID.
"Adding another study to the impressive list of those that have already been conducted and completed is a welcome exercise. Hydraulic fracturing is one of the U.S. oil and gas industry's crowning achievements, enabling us to produce energy supplies at enormous depths with surgical precision and unrivaled environmental safety records," he said.
Hydrofracing, which is used to stimulate many oil and gas wells, is a process in which fluids are injected at high pressure into underground rock formations to fracture the rock and increase the flow of fossil fuels.
Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), a vocal critic of hydrofracing, welcomed news of the EPA study on hydrofracing. "I am very pleased to learn that the [EPA] has decided to commence a study that will examine the risks hydraulic fracturing poses to drinking water supplies in New York and across the nation," he said.
"This is an important step towards ensuring that natural gas drilling is done in a way that protects our environment, vital natural resources and public health. It is also a necessary step since the EPA's 2004 study on the matter was marred by biased data influenced by senior officials in the previous administration," said Hinchey, who authored the proposal last year seeking the new EPA study.
The oil and gas industry disputes this claim, saying that the 2004 study showed that hydrofracing was not a threat to the environment or public health.
"While the production of natural gas is necessary and certainly has an important role to play in our national energy policy, it's imperative that we do everything we can to ensure our drinking water supplies are not contaminated...Understanding the risks that hydraulic fracturing poses to drinking water supplies is critical to guiding future policies and regulations that will safeguard the public," Hinchey said.
Hinchey is one of the sponsors of the FRAC ACT -- Fracking Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act -- legislation that would transfer regulation of hydrofracing, which is currently handled by the states, to the federal government (see NGI, June 15, 2009). The oil and gas industry is the only industry exempted from complying with the Safe Drinking Water Act.
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