EPA Study Plan on Hydraulic Fracturing Focuses on Impact on ‘Water Life Cycle'

By Alan Kovski

The Environmental Protection Agency issued its final plan Nov. 3 on how it will study the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water.

The final study plan will be organized around the water life cycle for the oil and gas drilling process of hydraulic fracturing, as EPA had signaled earlier in its draft plan. EPA said the life cycle consists of water acquisition, chemical mixing, well injection, flowback, produced water, wastewater treatment, and waste disposal.

The study will rely on a mix of existing data, retrospective case studies at sites where water contamination has occurred, prospective case studies at sites where fracturing is planned, computer modeling, some laboratory studies, and toxicological assessments based primarily on existing health effects data.

Most of the study will focus on fracturing in shale gas formations, but portions of the research “are also intended to provide information on hydraulic fracturing in coalbed methane and tight sand reservoirs,” the final plan said.

EPA said it “has also included a screening analysis of whether hydraulic fracturing activities may be disproportionately occurring in communities with environmental justice concerns.”

Industry Group Hopes to Participate

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is the high-pressure injection of water, sand, and some chemical additives into geological layers to create or expand fractures through which hydrocarbons can flow to a well. It especially is used for gas trapped in shale or coal, but it also is used for such purposes as extraction of oil from low-permeability sandstone formations, called “tight sands.”

EPA this summer got a head start on requesting data for the study. The agency said it will release initial research results by the end of 2012 and a final report in 2014.

The American Petroleum Institute issued a statement saying it is still reviewing the final study plan but that the industry association “is confident that a full examination will confirm that hydraulic fracturing poses no significant risk to human health, drinking water resources or the environment.”

The association said it looked forward to participating in the study.

Study Responds to Congressional Request

The EPA study responds to a request from Congress, which was reacting to concerns about water contamination by hydrocarbons or fracturing fluids. Concerns especially have been raised about the chemical additives, typically 0.5 percent to 2 percent of the fracturing fluids. The chemicals control fluid viscosity, reduce friction, inhibit corrosion, and inhibit bacterial growth.

State regulators and industry have said states and companies are doing an adequate job of preventing pollution from fracturing (187 DEN A-9, 9/27/11).

The EPA final study plan on the impacts that hydraulic fracturing may have on drinking water is available at http://1.usa.gov/sNyzcx .

Additional EPA information on hydraulic fracturing is available at http://www.epa.gov/hydraulicfracturing .