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Ex-EPA Official Sees Higher Fracking Costs Due to Added Safeguards

It's going to be more costly to conduct hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of shale gas wells in the future due to increased regulation, said a former official with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

"Hydraulic fracturing is going to be more expensive in the future because of the added and important environmental safeguards and monitoring and reporting requirements," said Ben Grumbles, former assistant administrator for water at the EPA and current president of the Washington, DC-based Clean Water America Alliance, in an interview with E&ETV's OnPoint Monday (www.eenews.net/gw).

"I think the country is, and I sense the administration is, willing to embrace natural gas as a bridge fuel and hydraulic fracturing. It's an amazing feat of engineering, this combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. It can be a real game changer, and I think Congress realizes that," he said.

"I think it [fracking] can be done safely. I think the key question is how you define impacts and the future management of the [fracking] process. The encouraging thing about this [debate] to me is that we are finally beginning to ask the questions and look at what the water footprint is of energy production. And for hydraulic fracturing, I think water is at the heart of it, both quantity and quality," Grumbles said.

While fracking can be done safely, "there's no question that it hasn't been done safely in some places," he said. And "there's no question that it [shale gas] offers enormous economic and energy security benefits. The key is learning more about the impacts on the surface water and also the water consumption and what the overall cumulative impact is," Grumbles said.

"I think the jury is still out on groundwater impacts [of fracking], although from what I've learned and in the 2004 EPA study that I was involved in, it's not as significant of a risk as other aspects of hydraulic fracturing. But there needs to be more data, more on-the-ground information, like seismic activity and different variables. I think these are all important questions to be asking.

The 2004 EPA study found that fracking was not a threat to the environment or public health, according to oil and gas producers. However, fracking opponents -- environmentalists, conservationists and some Capitol Hill Democrats -- claimed that the study was biased.

In March 2010 the EPA began a second study of the potential risks of fracking on water quality and public health. Environmentalists and some lawmakers contend that the chemicals used in fracking are a health risk, but producers say they are confident that the study -- if conducted objectively -- will show fracking to be safe (see Daily GPI, March 19, 2010).

EPA expects a report of interim research to be completed in 2012. Additional reports of study findings will be published as long-term projects (prospective case studies) progress, with a follow-up report due out in 2014, the EPA said.

In addition to the EPA study, the Obama administration in April took the first step towards forming a broad-based panel to examine potential risks associated with fracking (see Shale Daily, April 4)

Fracking of shale formations is mostly regulated by the states. But legislation is pending in Congress that, if passed, would bring fracking under the aegis of the federal government.

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