Officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said Monday that the agency plans to roll out a series of key peer-reviewed papers related to its long-awaited draft report on the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on drinking water resources, setting the stage for its release early next year.

Although that would be a few months later than what the EPA’s Office of Research and Development said last year, details are slowly beginning to emerge that shine a light on what the agency is finding with a study it’s been working on since 2010, when Congress directed it to investigate fracking and its effects on water in several states.

In an interview with NGI’s Shale Daily, a senior official from the EPA heavily involved in the study’s implementation, who wished not to be named in discussing tentative timelines and some of the study’s preliminary findings, said the draft report would be released in March after a final series of peer-reviewed papers expected to be published on the agency’s website between November and December are released along with others early next year.

Nine academic papers related to the study have already been published on the agency’s website. They are compiled from individual research projects covering the study’s areas of focus, which include water acquisition; chemical mixing; well construction and completion; production and flowback water, and wastewater treatment and disposal. Parts of the papers will not only be included in the EPA’s broader draft assessment report in March, but are also aimed at supporting its credibility through the review of external technical experts, the official said.

Last year, the EPA said it planned to release the draft report late this year, followed by a final report in 2016 after a review by a panel of independent scientists (see Shale Daily, June 21, 2013). 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. That industry loophole could potentially be threatened if the EPA study finds that fracking has negative consequences for public water.

The forthcoming papers will pull from retrospective case studies and existing data, with a focus on previously reported incidents or possible water contamination through the examination of information provided by producers and publicly available data.

The EPA made its latest announcement about the study to a room full of state regulators from across the country and executives from oil and gas companies, including XTO Energy Inc., Gulfport Energy Corp. and ConocoPhillips, among others, during a meeting at the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission’s (IOGCC) annual conference in Columbus, OH. The papers and information due to be released by the end of the year include a spills data analysis, toxicity assessment case studies, a water availability paper, a surface water modeling paper and an analysis of 39,000 FracFocus well disclosures, the official said.

“We did an analysis of that data, and as it turns out, spills databases — just like the EPA’s spill database — don’t capture necessarily what caused the spill, just that there was an incident, it happened, it was responded to and everything’s taken care of now, which is the kind of message you want to get,” the official said of the spills analysis and public data from the 11 states included in it. “So, as we looked through all that, it was very difficult to figure out what was hydraulic fracturing and what was not. When we did find things that we thought were related to hydraulic fracturing, we actually talked to every one of these states and made sure they agreed. Where they disagreed, we took it off the list and moved forward.”

For its spills analysis, the agency compiled data from Texas, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Wyoming, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Utah, North Dakota and West Virginia. The official said it found that 36,000 general spills were reported between January 2006 and April 2012, of those, less than 1%, or 450 spills, were related to unconventional oil and gas development. Industry-related spills were “low volume,” with the analysis showing that 56% of those reported were less than 1,000 gallons of fluid.

“Flowback and produced water was the most common fluid spilled,” the official said. “The most common cause for spills was human error and the second most common was equipment failure.”

The official added, though, that “we couldn’t do any analysis to say whether there was a significant impact or not; it’s just what the facts are from the spills databases.”

In the upcoming FracFocus disclosures analysis, through information provided by the Ground Water Protection Council (GWPC) and the IOGCC, which operate the national fracking chemical registry, the information examined covers well reports from January 2011 to February 2013. Although the official said that information is somewhat outdated at this point, they added that the agency’s findings could have influence on any future regulations it proposes regarding chemical disclosures (see Shale Daily, May 9).

“What we need to capture in our paper, to reflect that there’s continuing improvement and that there’s continuing changes to that database, is water is the most frequently reported base fluid,” the official said. “Almost 700 unique chemicals were identified. The interesting thing about these are the chemicals per disclosure were less than one percent of the total mass that was used for the frack job.”

What’s more, the official added, is of the 39,000 disclosures analyzed, only about 11% of the chemicals included were reported as “confidential business information.”

Although he didn’t provide specific details, GWPC Executive Director Mike Paque said FracFocus had recently met with more than two dozen individuals, companies, states and environmental organization’s to discuss a new reporting system that would more uniformly discourage confidential chemicals reporting. If the group can agree on a better approach, FracFocus could soon cut the number of confidential disclosures in half, he said.

The EPA official said it wasn’t clear when all of the academic papers would be published, saying that some will not be complete before the end of the year. It also remains unclear at what point in 2016 the agency will release its final report.