Friday, March 19, 2010

EPA Announces Hydraulic Fracturing Investigation Strategy

Mar 18: U.S.EPA issued a Federal Register notice [75 FR 13125] announcing that it will conduct a comprehensive research study to investigate the potential adverse impact that hydraulic fracturing may have on water quality and public health. The process has come under scrutiny by environmental groups and is also being investigated by the House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Environment and Energy Subcommittee Chairman Edward Markey (D-MA) [See WIMS 2/19/10].
    Hydraulic fracturing is a process that drills vertical and horizontal cracks underground that help withdraw gas, or oil, from coalbeds, shale and other geological formations. While each site is unique, in general, the process involves vertical and horizontal drilling, taking water from the ground, injecting fracturing fluids and sands into the formation, and withdrawing gas and separating and managing the leftover waters. According to a report by Environmental Working Group (EWG) entitled, Drilling Around the Law, the fracturing fluids include distillates including kerosene, mineral spirits and a number of other petroleum products that often contain high levels of benzene. EWG said the "petroleum distillates used in a single well could contain enough benzene to contaminate more than 100 billion gallons of drinking water to unsafe levels."
    In a release, EPA indicates that natural gas plays a key role in our nation's clean energy future and the process known as hydraulic fracturing [a.k.a. fracking] is one way of accessing that vital resource. There are concerns that hydraulic fracturing may impact ground water and surface water quality in ways that threaten human health and the environment. To address these concerns and strengthen our clean energy future and in response to language inserted into the fiscal year 2010 Appropriations Act, EPA is re-allocating $1.9 million for this comprehensive, peer-reviewed study for FY10 and requesting funding for FY11 in the president's budget proposal.

    Dr. Paul T. Anastas, assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Research and Development said, "Our research will be designed to answer questions about the potential impact of hydraulic fracturing on human health and the environment. The study will be conducted through a transparent, peer-reviewed process, with significant stakeholder input." EPA is in the very early stages of designing a hydraulic fracturing research program. The Agency is proposing the process begin with: (1) defining research questions and identifying data gaps; (2) conducting a robust process for stakeholder input and research prioritization; (3) with this input, developing a detailed study design that will undergo external peer-review, leading to (4) implementing the planned research studies.

    To support this initial planning phase and guide the development of the study plan, the Agency is seeking suggestions and comments from the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) -- an independent, external Federal advisory committee. The Agency has requested that the Environmental Engineering Committee (EEC) of the SAB evaluate and provide advice on EPA's proposed approach. The Agency will use this advice and extensive stakeholder input to guide the design of the study. 
The Federal Register notice announces the first meeting of the SAB review committee which consists of the SAB Environmental Engineering Committee (EEC) augmented with other SAB members. The meeting, April 7-8, in Washington, DC will evaluate and comment on EPA's proposed approach to studying the potential public health and environmental protection issues that may be associated with hydraulic fracturing.
    Regina Hopper, President and CEO of America's Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA) issued a brief statement saying, "The natural gas community looks forward to working with the EPA to reaffirm the safety of this longstanding practice. Hydraulic fracturing has been refined and improved over the past 60 years and has been used safely on more than 1 million U.S. wells. With the extraordinary opportunity presented by our nation's natural gas abundance comes the responsibility to be good stewards of the land. Our members take this responsibility seriously, and we look forward to sharing with the EPA the extensive work done at every step of the natural gas extraction process. We are confident that a scientific and data-driven examination will provide policymakers and the public with even greater reassurance of the safety of this practice."
    The organization, EnergyInDepth, representing independent oil and natural gas producers says it "separates fact from fiction about our nation's natural gas and oil industry -- especially on emerging policy issues such as the environment and taxes." EnergyInDepth issued a statement saying, "We are hopeful and it is our expectation that this study -- if based on objective, scientific analysis -- will serve as an opportunity to highlight the host of steps taken at every wellsite that make certain groundwater is properly protected. The energy industry, as well as state regulatory agencies, are eager to work with EPA throughout this fact-based examination. Further, efforts underway in Congress to give EPA outright authority to regulate fracturing -- which could hamper domestic energy production and job growth -- should come to a standstill until this study is completed. . . Fracturing has a long and clear record of safely leveraging otherwise unreachable homegrown, clean-burning, job-creating energy reserves. . ."
    On March 17, the EnergyInDepth blog, commented on or "debunked" as they said, the premier showing in Washington, DC of what they call the "anti-American natural gas film GasLand." GasLand is a documentary on natural gas drilling and the fracking process. EnergyInDepth said, "Despite claims, this critical technology has never contaminated groundwater -- a fact confirmed by Steve Heare, director of EPA's Drinking Water Protection Division just weeks ago." They said, "The movie -- which is supported by a host of mainstream organizations (sarcasm people) such as the Damascus Citizens, Earth Justice, Environmental Working Group, National Resources Defense Council, Oil and Gas Accountability Project. . ."
    The American Petroleum Institute (API) issued a statement saying, "We expect the study to confirm what 60 years of experience and investigation have already demonstrated: that hydraulic fracturing is a safe and well understood technology for producing oil and natural gas. We hope the agency will provide ample opportunity for stakeholder comment and participation during the course of its study. . . While the technology has been used for more than a half century, its continued use is crucial. It is enabling access to massive new supplies of natural gas trapped in shale formations across the United States. These new finds have multiplied the nation's natural gas resources and will help generate electricity, heat homes and power vehicles for generations of Americans to come. . ."
    Earthjustice Legislative Associate Jessica Ennis said, "We commend EPA for investigating this controversial gas drilling technique. From Wyoming to Pennsylvania, people are worried about what this untested process is doing to their drinking water. . . As important as the study is, we know that what's really needed are federal protections. Hydraulic fracturing is currently exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act, so oil and gas companies are only required to comply with a patchwork of state regulations. Also thanks to this exemption, known as the Halliburton Loophole, we have no idea what chemicals drillers are pumping underground. . . Bills pending before Congress would remove the Halliburton Loophole and require companies to disclose the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluids. Congress needs to pass this legislation and quickly."

    Access a release from EPA (click here). Access the FR announcement (click here). Access more information on hydraulic fracturing from EPA (click here). Access more information on the SAB hydraulic fracturing review committee and the supporting documents (click here). Access the statement from ANGA (click here). Access a release from EnergyInDepth (click here). Access the EnergyInDepth blog post on GasLand (click here). Access a release from AIP (click here). Access an executive summary and link to the complete 24-page report from EWG (click here). Access a release from Earthjustice (click here). Access the GasLand website for more information on the film (click here).