• EPA’s “Fracking” Study: Potential Impacts On Marcellus Shale Development
  • February 22, 2011
  • Law Firm: Blank Rome LLP - Philadelphia Office
  • On February 7, 2011, the United States Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA") released a "Draft Plan to Study the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing on Drinking Water Resources" ("Draft Plan" or "Study"). The Draft Plan was issued in direct response to the U.S. Congress' Appropriation Conference Committee's 2010 mandate that EPA study the relationship between hydraulic fracturing practices and drinking water resources.

    In July 2004, EPA conducted a limited study on the effects of hydraulic fracturing in coalbed methane production on underground drinking water sources. EPA's 2004 study concluded that the injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids posed little or no threat to groundwater sources. While the current Study focuses on the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing in shale formations like the Marcellus Shale, the Draft Plan proposes research that will provide information on hydraulic fracturing used in several other methods of oil and gas production, including coalbed and tight sand production. Thus, the Draft Plan represents the most comprehensive study to date of the effects of hydraulic fracturing practices on the United States' drinking water resources.

    Hydraulic Fracturing

    Hydraulic fracturing is the practice of injecting water, mixed with chemicals and propping agents like sand, under high pressure into wells to release oil and natural gas trapped in underground rock formations. Hydraulic fracturing is generally regulated by state oil and gas boards or state natural resource agencies. However, EPA retains authority over many issues related to hydraulic fracturing under environmental statutes such as the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

    Purpose And Scope Of The Study

    The purpose of the Study is to understand the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water impacts. EPA plans to examine not only the conditions that may result in drinking water contamination, but also the factors that may lead to human exposure and risk. The Study addresses impacts to all "drinking water resources," which EPA defines to include any underground and surface water that currently, or in the future, may serve as a drinking water source for public or private water supplies.

    The Study proposes to examine the impacts of hydraulic fracturing in each of the following five life-cycle stages of the hydraulic fracturing process: (1) Water Acquisition; (2) Chemical Mixing; (3) Well Injection; (4) Flowback and Produced Water; and (5) Wastewater Treatment and Waste Disposal. EPA proposes to characterize toxicity in almost every stage of the hydraulic fracturing life-cycle. EPA also plans to summarize all available data obtained on chemicals and naturally occurring substances used and released during the hydraulic fracturing process in order to characterize and understand potential human health effects.

    Water Acquisition

    Hydraulic fracturing can require the use of large volumes of water that is typically withdrawn from local surface and groundwater sources. The amount of water needed varies depending on the type of rock formation and operation. For example, the Draft Plan estimates that water use in coalbed methane production may range from 50,000 to 350,000 gallons per well, while use in shale gas plays, such as the Marcellus Shale, typically ranges from two to four million gallons per well. The Study proposes to examine the effect of large volume water withdraws on drinking water resources by looking at the impacts on water availability and water quality.

    Chemical Mixing

    Since many companies treat their hydraulic fracturing fluid formulas as proprietary the exact composition of many of these formulas is unknown. In September 2010, EPA issued requests to nine hydraulic fracturing service companies for information on the identity and quantity of the chemicals used in each company's hydraulic fracturing fluid. EPA plans to use this information to determine the composition of the fluids and any potential toxic effects. The Study proposes to identify the factors that might influence the likelihood of drinking water contamination, along with the effect of mitigation approaches at reducing impacts of any such contamination. Finally, the Study proposes to examine the possible impacts of accidental releases of hydraulic fracturing fluids on drinking water resources.

    Well Injection

    Ideally, hydraulic fracturing fluid can be injected into oil and natural gas wells without contaminating drinking water resources. Success depends on variables such as the mechanical integrity of the well and the impact on naturally occurring substances. The Study proposes to examine the effectiveness of well construction practices in containing gases and fluids before, during and after fracturing. EPA will also examine how pre-existing artificial and natural features effect fluid and contaminant transport, and will identify the chemical, physical and biological processes that may impact the fate and transport of such substances. In addition, EPA will study the potential toxic effects of naturally occurring substances.

    Flowback and Produced Water

    After hydraulic fracturing fluid is injected into a well, the pressure is reduced and the direction of the fluid flow is reversed, allowing fracturing fluid and naturally occurring substances to flow back to the surface. While the physical and chemical properties of "flowback and produced water" vary, it has the potential to contain total dissolved solids, radionuclides, and volatile organic compounds such as benzene, toluene, zylenes, and acetone. The Study proposes to examine the impacts of accidental releases by looking at the composition and variability of "flowback and produced water," and the potential toxic effects of its constituents. In addition, EPA plans to identify the factors that may influence the likelihood of contamination, as well as the effectiveness of mitigation approaches at reducing any potential impacts.

    Wastewater Treatment and Waste Disposal

    "Flowback and produced water" is managed through disposal or treatment, the end result of which may be discharge to surface water bodies. The goal of treatment is to meet current water quality standards. The Study proposes to examine the possible impacts of inadequate treatment of hydraulic fracturing wastewaters, along with the effectiveness of current treatment and disposal methods.

    Methodology Of The Study

    The Study proposes to use research tasks in the form of case studies and scenario evaluations to examine potential drinking water impacts. "Retrospective Case Studies" will investigate reported instances of drinking water contamination in areas where hydraulic fracturing has already occurred. The goal of these studies is to determine if the reported contamination is, in fact, due to the hydraulic fracturing activities. "Prospective Case Studies" will be utilized at sites where hydraulic fracturing projects are being developed. These studies will focus on the entire hydraulic fracturing life-cycle and will allow EPA to evaluate changes to water quality over time. EPA expects to partner with oil and natural gas companies and other stakeholders in these studies. Finally, EPA plans to evaluate hypothetical scenarios in order to identify potential situations where hydraulic fracturing may adversely impact drinking water resources.

    The Draft Plan identifies each research task that must be accomplished for each of the five hydraulic fracturing life-cycle stages. However, EPA is permitting outside parties to submit proposals for extramural research projects under EPA's National Center for Environmental Research STAR Program and will incorporate these projects into the Study results. In addition, EPA plans to work with other federal agencies, such as the Department of Energy and the United States Geological Service, on many research projects conducted under the Study.

    Conclusion

    Congress directed EPA to conduct the Study in a transparent manner through a peer-review process to ensure the validity and accuracy of EPA's data and findings. Thus, it is crucial for all interested parties to participate in every opportunity for public comment and review.

    EPA's Science Advisory Board will review the Draft Plan and will accept public comment during hearings to be held on March 7-8, 2011. EPA's Science Advisory Board will also accept written comments until February 28, 2011. EPA expects to begin the Study in 2011 after public comment has ended. The Draft Plan states that a report on interim research results will be released in 2012, with additional study results being published as individual research projects are completed. EPA plans to release an additional report in 2014.