The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced plans to evaluate the safety and sustainability of a natural gas drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” The organization will conduct case studies in seven different locations in North Dakota, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Colorado.
“Fracking” is a means of natural gas extraction used in deep wells that were previously inaccessible by conventional drilling. The technique has been around for decades, but companies have expanded its use in recent years to extract hard-to-reach reserves of shale gas.
The process is highly complex and expensive. Once a well is drilled, it is injected with millions of gallons of pressurized water, sand and chemicals. The pressure fractures the shale and open fissures that enable natural gas to flow more freely out of the well.
The environmental impacts of fracking have been extensively researched. Drillers use over 500 chemicals and millions of gallons of water during the process. This water becomes highly contaminated and must be cleaned or disposed of. In most cases, only 30-50% of the wastewater is recovered from a well.
In 2005, the Bush/Cheney Energy Bill exempted natural gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Congress passed this Act in 1974 to ensure clean drinking water free from contaminates. As a result of the new Energy Bill, gas drilling companies are no longer required to disclose the chemicals used during hydraulic fracturing.
The FRAC Act (Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness to Chemical Act) was proposed to Congress in 2009 to repeal the 2005 Energy Bill loophole and to require the natural gas industry to disclose the chemicals they use. Although the bill never passed, it motivated the EPA to take additional steps to bring awareness to the issue.
The EPA said it will monitor “key aspects of the hydraulic fracturing process throughout the lifecycle of a well” at each site. The case studies were selected based on the proximity of people and drinking water supplies to the fracking sites.
“We’ve met with community members, state experts and industry and environmental leaders to choose these case studies,” said Paul Anastas, the Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development.
“This is an important part of a process that will use the best science to help us better understand the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water.”
Natural gas plays a key role in our nation’s energy future. The EPA is working closely with other federal partners on this project to ensure that natural gas can be developed safely.
“This is about using the best possible science to do what the American people expect the EPA to do: ensure that the health of their communities and families is protected,” Anastas said.
The EPA expects the initial results from its study on hydraulic fracking will be released by the end of next year.