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EPA Develops Plan to Study Hydraulic Fracturing Process

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February 16, 2011

The U.S. Environmental Protection (EPA) has announced the submission of its draft study plan on hydraulic Fracturing for review by a panel of independent scientists.

After announcing its intention to study the hydraulic fracturing process in March 2010 and conducting a series of public meetings across the country last July, August and September, the EPA has developed a draft plan for the study and given it to the agency’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) for review.

Hydraulic fracturing, also called HF, fracking or fracing, is a process used to increase the output of natural gas and oil wells. During hydraulic fracturing, well drilling operations pump 2 to 5 million gallons of a toxic cocktail containing water, chemicals, including known carcinogens and neurotoxins, and sand into rock formations at extremely high pressure. While between 50% and 75% of fracking fluid remains in the ground, the rest returns to the surface. Called produced water, it contains not only fracking chemicals, but also heavy metals and other toxins from exposure to the rock formation.

Fracking fluids, produced water and methane gas from drilling operations have contaminated soil, ground water and surface water through surface spills, faulty well casings and rock faults.

“EPA scientists, under this administration and at the direction of Congress, are undertaking a study of this practice to better understand any potential impacts it may have, including on groundwater,” the EPA news release said.

As proposed, the EPA will study the entire hydraulic fracturing process, including the acquisition of the millions of gallons of water, the mixing of the fracking fluid chemicals, the injection of fracking fluids into the well and the management and disposal of produced water.

The SAB review will occur March 7-8, 2011. The public may comment to the SAB during the review. In response to SAB recommendations, the EPA will revise the study plan and begin the study. The EPA expects to make Initial study findings available to the public by the end of 2012, with a report in 2014.

The hydraulic fracturing process, used in 37 states, has fueled a natural gas and oil drilling boom in the last decade, especially in states with natural gas producing shale formations such as Colorado, Pennsylvania and New York.

This is not the first EPA study of hydraulic fracturing. One of the EPA’s own scientists called a 2004 EPA study on hydraulic fracturing that concluded the process posed little or no threat to drinking water supplies “unsupportable.” Other EPA and independent scientists questioned the study’s methodology and the reviewing panel’s impartiality, the Union of Concerned Scientists reports.