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EPA Issues Interim Fracking Review Update; Draft Expected in 2014

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued an interim update of 18 studies that have been undertaken in its multi-year review of the potential risks of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of shale gas wells on public drinking water.

The interim update released Thursday, of the "Study of the Potential Impact of Hydraulic Fracturing on Drinking Water Resources," commissioned by the Congress in 2009, does not draw any final conclusions on any issues. That will come sometime in 2014 when the agency plans to issue a draft report, putting it out for comments.

"The body of this progress report presents the research progress made by the EPA, as of September 2012, regarding the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources; information presented as part of this report cannot be used to draw conclusions about the proposed research questions," said the EPA's nearly 300-page report.

The agency has designed the scope of the research around five stages of the fracking water cycle, including:

The report describes the 18 research projects that are under way to answer these questions. No conclusions have been reached at this point, it said. So far, "data from multiple sources have been obtained for review and analysis. Many of the data come directly from the oil and gas industry and states with high levels of oil and gas activity," the EPA said.

As part of the review, information on the chemicals and practices used in fracturing has been collected from nine service companies that fracked 24,925 wells between September 2009 and October 2010, according to the EPA.

Additional data on chemicals and water used for fracking are being pulled from more than 12,000 well-specific chemical disclosures in FracFocus, a national hydraulic fracturing chemical registry operated by the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission. Via the FracFocus website, companies can voluntarily submit data on chemicals used to fracture natural gas and oil wells.

Moreover, the EPA said it is reviewing records on well construction.

Data on the causes and volumes of spills of fracking fluids and wastewater also are being collected and reviewed from state spill databases in Colorado, New Mexico and Pennsylvania, while similar information is being sought from the National Response Center national database of oil and chemical spills.

At the time Congress directed the EPA to conduct the study, oil and natural gas producers said they were confident that the study, if conducted objectively, would show fracking to be environmentally safe. A 2004 EPA study concluded that fracking did not pose a risk to public drinking water.

The Energy Policy Act, which Congress passed in 2005, exempted fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act, which seeks to protect the public water supply from contamination from toxic materials. The oil and gas industry could lose this loophole if the EPA study finds that fracking has negative consequences for public water supply.

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