The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last Tuesday submitted a 140-page draft plan to the agency’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) to study potential drinking water contamination associated with chemicals and fluids used in hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracking).

Members of the SAB are experts from some of the top universities in the United States, including Carnegie Mellon University, University of Pittsburgh, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Pennsylvania State University and the University of Texas, as well as the California Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado School of Mines. The board is expected to review the draft plan on March 7-8. The public will have an opportunity to provide comments to the SAB during their review.

“The scope of the proposed research includes the full lifecycle of water in hydraulic fracturing, from water acquisition through the mixing of chemicals and actual fracturing to the post-fracturing stage, including the management of flowback and produced water and its ultimate treatment and/or disposal,” the draft study plan said.

In March 2010 the EPA announced its plans to study the potential risks of hydrofracking on water quality and public health. Environmentalists and some lawmakers contend that the chemicals used in hydrofracking are a health risk, but producers say they are confident that the study — if conducted objectively — will show hydrofracking to be safe (see NGI, March 22, 2010).

Hydrofracking, 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 stimulate the flow of oil or natural gas. The technique has become widely used in the development of shale gas.

The EPA study plan will include retrospective case studies, which will focus on investigating reported instances of drinking water resource contamination or other impacts in areas where hydrofracking has already occurred, the agency said. EPA said the retrospective studies would be conducted at three to five sites across the U.S. “The sites will be illustrative of the types of problems that have been reported to [the] EPA during stakeholder meetings,” it noted.

In addition, the study plan will include prospective case studies, which will involve sites where hydrofracking will occur after the research is initiated, according to the EPA. “These case studies allow sampling and characterization of the site before, during and after water extraction, drilling, hydraulic fracturing fluid injection, flowback and gas production. EPA will work with industry and other stakeholders to conduct two to three prospective case studies in different regions of the United States,” the agency said.

“The data collected during prospective case studies will allow EPA to gain an understanding of hydraulic fracturing practices, evaluate changes in water quality over time, and assess the fate and transport of potential chemical contaminants,” the study report noted.

“Generalized scenario evaluations will allow [the] EPA to explore hypothetical scenarios relating to hydraulic fracturing activities, and to identify scenarios under which hydraulic fracturing may adversely impact drinking water resources based on current understanding and available data,” it said.

The substances to be investigated include chemicals used in hydrofracking fluids, their degredates and/or reaction products, and naturally occurring substances that may be released or mobilized as a result of hydrofracking.

EPA said it will provide periodic updates on the progress of the various projects as the research is being conducted. Early results my indicate the need for EPA to conduct further investigations to identify key factors that may impact drinking water resources. It is expected that a report of interim research results will 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.

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