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EPA, DOI, DOE Each Studying New Fracking Rules

How many U.S. government agencies does it take to frack a well?

The same week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) outlined a 190-page plan for its study of the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), the U.S. Interior Department (DOI) said it was close to completion of a proposed rule on the same subject to apply to federal lands.

The final draft of the EPA's study plan, checking out the impact on water quality and public health "looks at the full cycle of water in hydraulic fracturing, from the acquisition of the water, through the mixing of chemicals and actual fracturing, to the post-fracturing stage, including the management of flowback and produced or used water as well as its ultimate treatment and disposal." Other potential impacts of fracking, including possible air pollution, are outside the scope of the study, EPA said in releasing the study plan Thursday.

Initial EPA research results and study findings are scheduled to be released next year, with a final report due in 2014.

While the EPA studies, Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is forging ahead, following up its own study with a proposed rule on frack practices, expected to be issued by the end of 2011, with a final rule and implementation in 2012. And a Department of Energy (DOE) advisory subcommittee is expected to issue its own best frack practices by Nov. 18.

Testifying earlier in the week before the DOE panel, Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes said BLM is considering revising its rules to require full disclosure of the chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process and extending existing water management requirements that apply to produced waters to include flowback water as well.

Hayes said the proposed rules to be applied to 700 million acres of public lands also would likely extend existing wellbore integrity standards through the fracking process.

BLM also is investigating how to institute a frack chemical disclosure system without duplicating state and industry efforts. It was noted, however, that state requirements vary widely and that the fracfocus.org chemical disclosure database set up by state and industry participants has not asked for all chemical ingredients.

Hayes testified before the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB) Natural Gas Subcommittee, which is due to make its final recommendations on "best practices" for fracking by the middle of this month. The subcommittee's initial draft encourages regulators and the industry to develop and enact a "best practices" strategy on fracking, to include disclosure of the contents of fracking fluids, measures to protect air and water quality and providing more information to the public (see Shale Daily, Aug. 17).

The EPA said its study version will be conducted "by multidisciplinary teams of EPA researchers, in collaboration with outside experts from the public and private sector. The agency will use existing data from hydraulic fracturing service companies and oil and gas operators, federal and state agencies, and other sources," according to the plan. EPA also plans to conduct case studies in the field, generalized scenario evaluations using computer modeling, laboratory studies and a screening analysis of whether fracking activities "may be disproportionately occurring in communities with environmental justice concerns."

While the study will emphasize fracking in shale formations, portions of EPA's research will also provide information on fracking in coalbed methane and tight sand reservoirs, according to the plan.

When EPA announced the study last year, producers said they were confident that the study -- if conducted objectively -- would show fracking to be safe. On Thursday America's Natural Gas Alliance said its members "continue to support the congressional mandate that the agency use 'a transparent, peer-reviewed process' that will 'ensure the validity and accuracy of the data.' This transparency is critical to providing the public with confidence about the methodology and assumptions employed in this study."

Since it was first announced the EPA study has been reviewed by the Science Advisory Board and discussed at a series of public meetings. This year EPA conducted related field work at various regions of the country and identified seven case studies to help inform the assessment (see Shale Daily, June 24).

The case studies will be broken into two groups, EPA said. Two of the seven sites, located in the Haynesville and Marcellus shales, were selected as prospective case studies where EPA will monitor key aspects of the fracking process throughout the lifecycle of a well. Five retrospective case studies will examine sites in the Bakken, Barnett and Marcellus shales and in Colorado's Raton Basin where fracking has occurred for any impact on drinking water resources.

There have been objections to the federal agencies' shale efforts. U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) (see Shale Daily, Nov. 2) and Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (see Shale Daily, Oct. 27) are among those who have said regulation of shale gas and related issues -- including the use of fracking -- should be left to state officials.

Questioned about the apparent overkill, a DOI spokesman said his department "continues to work closely with our sister federal agencies to ensure that existing financial resources are being maximized and that instead of duplicating any research efforts, each of our respective agencies are contributing our core competencies."

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