USEPA Releases Plan to Study Fracking Impacts on Drinking Water
Thursday, January 03, 2013
By the time the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finishes its study on the affects of hydraulic fracturing on the nation's water supply, there may be thousands of horizontal wells burrowing through the Utica shale in Ohio.
The EPA started research on its Plan to Study the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing on Drinking Water Resources in 2011 and doesn't expect confirmed results until late 2014, according to an email from Michael Wise, a member at McDonalds Hopkins legal firm in Cleveland.
The progress report on the plan to study the oil versus drinking water conundrum states the EPA isn't making any judgment, yet, about how extensively our drinking water may be exposed to fracking fluids.
However, the entire progress report can be found at www.epa.gov/hfstudy -- all 278 pages of it.
Wise said the report isn't what some hoped it would be.
"Some stakeholders had predicted that this progress report would provide some basis for interim regulation. Instead, it appears that the industry will not face any new federal regulation until at least late 2014 at the earliest, which is the projected date of release for the final report," he wrote.
As discussed in this column before, hydraulic fracturing (fracking) has been going on for 40 years or more in Ohio.
If you see a well that looks like it dates back to the late 1970s, chances are good that it was fracked.
Any spills, gas leaks or contamination of drinking water from gas or oil wells in Geauga County may be related to ordinary vertical wells.
We know about the Bainbridge gas explosion.
Why Fund This Study?
If there has been so much fracking across the country in past decades, why is the federal EPA only now concerned enough to fund an extensive, probably expensive study?
People worried their water wells might become contaminated have pressured Washington D.C. to take action, the summary says.
"Responsible development of America's oil and gas resources offers important economic, energy security and environmental benefits," the report said. "In response to public concern, the U.S. House of Representatives requested that the USEPA conduct scientific research to examine the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water resources."
The world has changed pretty drastically in the last 50 years.
I grew up in the farmland of western Pennsylvania on spring water that almost certainly drained through layers of bituminous coal before flowing into the tank in our basement.
My father hung an ultraviolet light over the open tank to discourage bacteria, but that iron-rich water, which could have contained other, less desirable metals and chemicals, never worried us.
It was tested once a year and we were fine.
Since then, America had had Silent Spring, chemical dumping, birth defects and diseases and a host of problems that are likely connected to overpopulation and the global consumerism our industries race to feed.
Various levels of environmental government agencies have struggled to bring the blatant pollution of the 1960s under control with a wide variety of success and generous use of tax dollars.
It is no wonder the next generation drinks only filtered water and sanitizes everything they touch.
We are more attuned to our environment today, unlike in the past, and the progress report on the focus of the study-to-come reflects that appropriate concern.
Horizontal Fracking Concerns
Not only does each horizontal well require millions of gallons of water for fracking purposes, the well follows the Utica shale bed horizontally for up to a mile, last I heard, which means the fracturing could be going on under homes and water wells a great distance from the well pad.
Water wells in Geauga County are usually just a few hundred feet deep while the Utica shale bed is thousands of feet under the surface, but people are legitimately concerned about the possible effect that fracking could have on the aquifer.
There is a cycle to the hydraulic fracturing and the report explains the study will address each stage of that cycle with a primary research question.
• Water acquisition: What are the possible impacts of drawing large volumes of water from lakes, rivers and drinking water resources?
• Chemical mixing: Since the fracking fluid contains a variety of chemicals to facilitate extraction of oil and gas from the shale, what effect would potential surface spills of those chemicals at the well pad have on drinking water resources?
• Well injection: What are the possible effects on drinking water when the fracking fluid is injected into the shale bed under pressure to break up the shale and release gas and oil?
• Flowback water: When the frack water comes back to the surface with the oil and gas, how would a spill affect drinking water resources?
• Waste water treatment and waste disposal: The accepted methods of disposing of the flowback frack water captured when the well begins producing oil and gas is to re-inject it into non-active wells. The study will determine the possible impacts of inadequately treated frack water on the drinking water resources.
More Study Needed
Among its hundreds of pages, the report traces progress of 18 research projects since September, but warns the information thus collected can't be used to draw conclusions about drinking water impacts from fracking.
They are strictly gathering data and will present an analysis of existing data, scenario evaluations, lab studies, toxicity assessments and case studies.
From September 2009 to October 2010, nine companies fracked almost 25,000 wells, the report said.
Chemicals and practices come from the oil and gas industry as well as from states where fracking occurs.
A website called FracFocus, a fracking chemical registry, has been opened by the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission.
The study will consider records from 333 oil and gas wells across America and determine if current construction practices are effectively containing gases and liquids through the process.
The EPA is also studying scientific literature on fracking and a request for peer-reviewed data and reports was published Nov. 9 in the Federal Register.
Databases on spills in Colorado, New Mexico and Pennsylvania are being collected as well as cutting-edge technologies.
"This body of literature will be synthesized with results from other research projects to create a report of results," the update said.
Gas, Oil Migration Modeled
Computer models will inform the EPA regarding conditions that could impact all the stages of the cycle, the conditions necessary for liquid or gas migration from the Utica shale bed to an aquifer.
Scientists are testing concentrations of bromide and radium at water intake sources downstream from facilities that discharge treated frack water.
The impact of improperly-treated frack water on rivers will require a lot of testing and the development of some new methods of analysis for measuring low-level chemical content.
With that many pages in a study, indices are bound to occur and that is where the toxicity assessments come in.
The EPA has found chemicals reportedly used in fracking from 2005 to 2011 including chemicals in flowback and produced water, the summary said.
Appendix A has tables including more than 1,000 chemicals, but the EPA is not making any judgments on their effects on drinking water resources.
Research continues on water taken from five locations in Colorado, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Texas.
Science Advisory Board Formed
The EPA promises plenty of peer review and transparent processes through collaboration with various agencies and organization, industry and individual experts, including an ad hoc expert panel under the EPA Science Advisory Board.
The progress report will be followed by findings from the Science Advisory Board, individual reports and papers, a draft report of results, The Science Advisory Board's Peer Review and the final report of results.
"Ultimately, the results of this study are expected to inform the public and provide decision-makers at all levels with high-quality scientific knowledge that can be used in decision-making processes," the report concludes.
It's a little hard to believe the ponderous EPA can get all this done in under two years.