The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has launched a $1.9-million research study into the potential impact of hydraulic fracturing — used in the extraction of natural gas — on water quality and public health.
According to the EPA, the hydraulic fracturing process involves taking water from the ground, pumping fracturing fluids and sands into the wells under pressure, then separating and managing the leftover water after withdrawing the gas.
Although the process has been used by the petroleum industry for many years, it’s only been recently that more concerns about water contamination have been raised by the government, environmentalists and the public as the demand for natural gas has risen, driving more drillers into the Marcellus Shale formation, reports the New York Times.
These concerns have already driven Chesapeake Energy to back away from drilling for natural gas within the New York City watershed, a small area within the Marcellus Shale natural gas reserve.
Chesapeake Energy and XTO Energy say the supplies in the shale regions including Texas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and New York could increase the available domestic reserves of natural gas, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions compared to coal and oil, reports the Wall Street Journal.
In June 2009, two companion Senate and House bills, called the FRAC ACT — Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act, amending the Safe Drinking Water Act (H.R. 2776 and S. 1215) — were introduced to repeal the oil and gas industry’s exemption from the U.S.’s safe drinking water law. The legislation would require them to disclose the chemicals they use in their hydraulic fracturing processes.
The New York Times reports that the House Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats will continue their probe into chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing.
Although oil and gas companies such as ExxonMobil and XTO Energy have said as recently as January that they don’t object to revealing what chemicals are used in hydraulic fracturing, they do object to the EPA being in charge of regulating the process, echoing the industry’s concern that the EPA will either ban the practice or make it too expensive to drill.
The EPA is proposing a four-part process to study the technique, which includes defining research questions and identifying data gaps, conducting a process for stakeholder input and research prioritization, developing a detailed peer-reviewed study design based on input from stakeholders, and then implementing the research studies.
Currently, the EPA is seeking advice from the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) on the proposal.