Responding to reports of environmental contamination in gas drilling areas across the country, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will conduct a nationwide scientific study to determine if the problems are caused by the practice of injecting chemicals and water underground to fracture the gas-bearing rock.
The study, announced Thursday but hinted at for months, will revisit research the agency published in 2004, which concluded that the process of hydraulic fracturing
did not pose a threat to drinking water. The 2004 report has been
widely criticized, in part because the agency didn't conduct any water
tests in reaching that conclusion.
"The use of hydraulic
fracturing has significantly increased well beyond the scope of the
2004 study," EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones wrote in response to
questions from ProPublica. The old study, she said, did not address
drilling in shale, which is common today. It also didn't take into
account the relatively new practice of drilling and hydraulically
fracturing horizontally for up to a mile underground, which requires
about five times more chemical-laden fluids than vertical drilling.
"This study is the agency's response to public concern about this
practice and Congressional request."
The 2004 report was used by
the Bush administration and Congress to justify legislation exempting
hydraulic fracturing from oversight under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
The exemption came to be known in some quarters as the "Halliburton
loophole" and has inhibited federal regulators ever since.
fracturing technology, in which a mixture of chemicals and water is
injected underground with sand at high pressure to crack the earth and
release natural gas, made it possible for energy companies to open vast
domestic energy reserves across the country and fueled a nationwide
boom in drilling activity.
"EPA needs to finish what is
started," said Gwen Lachelt, director of the Oil and Gas Accountability
Project, a Colorado-based advocacy group that represents landowners
with contaminated water. "We need comprehensive studies of the entire
exploration and production process, but this is an important place to
The American Petroleum Institute released a statement
saying it expects the study "to confirm what 60 years of experience and
investigation have already demonstrated: that hydraulic fracturing is a
safe and well understood technology for producing oil and natural gas."
Fuller, vice president of government affairs for the Independent
Petroleum Association of America, said hydraulic fracturing is one of
the industry's "crowning achievements."
"Adding another study to the impressive list of those that have already been conducted and completed is a welcome exercise," he said.
A series of investigations by ProPublica found that fracturing is the common thread in more than 1,000 cases of water contamination across seven states. In some cases fracturing may have caused dozens of well failures where
the concrete or steel meant to protect aquifers from the gas and
drilling fluids cracked under high pressure, allowing contaminants to
seep into the water. In hundreds of other cases the waste and chemicals
generated by hydraulic fracturing have been spilled or seeped into
surface and groundwater supplies.
Fuller said that Congress' efforts to allow the EPA to regulate the process "should come to a standstill until this study is completed."
More than 50 members of the House of Representatives have co-sponsored the Frack Act,
a bill that would reverse the drilling industry's exemption from the
Safe Drinking Water Act and allow the EPA to regulate fracturing if it
chose to do so. The Frack Act also would require companies to disclose
the chemicals pumped underground in the process -- information that is
usually protected as trade secrets. The House Energy and Commerce
Committee is also conducting a separate investigation of hydraulic fracturing's impact on water resources.
EPA has yet to say exactly how the new study will be conducted or when
it will begin, but sources within the agency told ProPublica that it
will likely involve a number of EPA regional offices in Colorado,
Texas, New York, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, and could build off two related investigations the EPA is undertaking in Wyoming gas fields.
In its announcement
Thursday, the agency said it will spend nearly $2 million on the
research this year and is asking for more money for next year. It
promised a transparent, peer-reviewed process that includes stakeholder
input. The EPA is seeking input from its Science Advisory Board on
exactly how the study should proceed.