April 8, 2010
A federal study of hydraulic fracturing set to begin this spring is expected to provide the most expansive look yet at how the natural gas drilling process can affect drinking water supplies, according to interviews with EPA officials and a set of documents outlining the scope of the project. The research will take a substantial step beyond previous studies and focus on how a broad range of ancillary activity – not just the act of injecting fluids under pressure – may affect drinking water quality.
The oil and gas industry strongly opposes this new approach. The agency’s intended research "goes well beyond relationships between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water," said Lee Fuller, vice president of government affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of America in comments (PDF) he submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The "lifecycle" approach will allow the agency to take into account hundreds of reports of water contamination in gas drilling fields across the country. Although the agency hasn’t settled on the exact details, researchers could examine both underground and surface water supplies, gas well construction errors, liquid waste disposal issues and chemical storage plans as part of its assessment.
The EPA begins public hearings today in Washington to nail down the scope of the study.
The EPA is undertaking the study in response to a wave of reports of water contamination in drilling areas across the country and a Congressional mandate issued in an appropriations bill last fall. The agency had previously examined hydraulic fracturing in a 2004 study that was limited in scope and was widely criticized.
For the latest study, the EPA sent its scoping document to its Science Advisory Board asking for the group’s input in designing the fracturing study. In the document, the EPA explained that information gained from looking at the impact from the start to the end of the process, called a lifecycle assessment "can help policymakers understand and make decisions about the breadth of issues related to hydraulic fracturing, including cross-media risks and the relationship to the entire natural gas production cycle."
In past interviews with ProPublica, Fuller has explained that, in his view, hydraulic fracturing shouldn’t be blamed for any contamination unless the process of injecting fracturing fluids underground under pressure was "the sole" cause of contamination. If contamination seeped through cracks in a gas well’s protective casing under pressure of the fracturing process, for example, he wouldn’t attribute it to fracturing because the cracks may have existed before the fracturing process began and would be a well construction problem, not a fracturing problem.
Fuller’s definition of fracturing-related contamination helps explain the oil and gas industry’s steadfast claim that that there is not a single case in which hydraulic fracturing has been proven to have contaminated drinking water supplies.
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