EPA Launches Study of Hydraulic Gas Drilling

U.S. environmental regulators said last week that they would begin a new study of hydraulic gas drilling, or fracking. The focus of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) investigation will be the environmental and human health impact of shale gas drilling.

Hydraulic fracturing involves injecting water, sand and a cocktail of chemicals at high pressure into rock formations thousands of feet below the surface. This opens existing fractures in the rock and allows gas to rise through the wells. The practice makes drilling possible in areas that 10 to 20 years ago would not have been profitable.

Hydraulic fracturing is currently used in 90 percent of the nation’s natural gas and oil wells. Recently fracking has been used to tap natural gas stored in shale formations, including the Marcellus Shale that lies beneath New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio.

Energy companies tout fracking as a way of reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil and polluting coal. But many are beginning to wonder about the impact the practice could have on the environment and public health. The major concern with hydraulic gas drilling is the chemicals used in the process, and the wastewater it produces. According to a recently released report from the Environmental Working Group, distillates from hydraulic drilling include kerosene, mineral spirits and a number of other petroleum products that often contain high levels of benzene, a known human carcinogen that is toxic in water at even minuscule levels. In 2005, Congress in exempted hydraulic fracturing, except fracturing with diesel fuel, from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The EPA has allocated $1.9 million for its study, which the agency said is in the very early stages. It will look at the effect on groundwater, surface water, human health and the environment in general. The study should be completed in 2012.

“Our research will be designed to answer questions about the potential impact of hydraulic fracturing on human health and the environment,” Paul Anastas, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development said in a statement. “The study will be conducted through a transparent, peer-reviewed process, with significant stakeholder input.”

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