EPA Fracking Study Will Look at Water Use

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is broadening the scope of a study meant to measure the impacts of the gas drilling process called hydraulic fracturing. In addition to investigating the impacts of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on water quality, the EPA will also look into the volumes of water required by such operations.

The EPA announced the fracking study in March, following an order from the US Congress. The agency had issued a report on hydraulic fracturing in 2004, but it was criticized as flawed due to heavy industry influence on the panel that reviewed that study. The 2004 study ostensibly found that fracking posed no threat to water quality, but an EPA whistleblower claimed findings that showed benzene and other toxic chemicals in fracking fluid could migrate into ground water had been suppressed in the final report.

It was that report that convinced Congress to exempt fracking from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. As a result, regulation of the industry is left up to the states, and drillers are not required to disclose the chemicals they use in their fracking fluids.

At a public hearing in New York earlier this week, the EPA said that it will not only investigate the risks the chemicals pose to water, but also the large volumes required for the process.

During the event, Robert Puls, EPA’s technical leader on the study pointed out that companies drill as many as 16 wells from a single well pad. “That’s 80 million gallons of water. Where is that water coming from? Is it competing with other uses, in particular drinking water?”

Environmentalists are hoping the EPA study, which is expected to be finished in 2012, will lead to stricter regulation of the industry. “They have never done a hydraulic fracking study as comprehensive as the one now beginning,” Scott Anderson, a senior policy adviser for the Environment Defense Fund, told the Associated Press. “The results of this study will inform future congressional decisions on whether to continue to exempt hydraulic fracturing from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.”

Hydraulic fracturing involves injecting water, sand, and a cocktail of chemicals at high pressure into rock formations thousands of feet below the surface. The chemicals that make up that fracking fluid are cause for concern. They may include, among other things, barium, strontium, benzene, glycol-ethers, toluene, 2-(2-methoxyethoxy) ethanol, and nonylphenols.

Drillers got the Safe Drinking Water Act exemption by convincing Congress that fracking fluids are ultimately removed from the shale formations into which they are pumped. But recent evidence suggest otherwise. A ProPublica investigation recently purported that “as much as 85 percent of the fluids used during hydraulic fracturing is being left underground after wells are drilled in the Marcellus Shale.” Likewise, the water treatment company ProChem Tech reported that “generally 10 to 20% is recovered.”

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