US to study hydraulic fracturing impact on water, health

18 March 2010 18:54  [Source: ICIS news]

WASHINGTON (ICIS news)--The US federal government said on Thursday it will begin a two-year study of hydraulic fracturing to determine if that crucial natural gas drilling technique threatens water quality and public health.

The announcement by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of its research plan was quickly welcomed by the US energy industry, which said it expects the government study will reaffirm hydraulic fracturing - known as fracking - as a time-tested and safe extraction technology.

Used by drilling companies for more than 50 years, hydraulic fracturing involves high-pressure injection of water, sand and chemical additives to free oil and natural gas from deep rock formations.  Fracking is essential to development of vast new resources of shale gas.

The US petrochemicals industry and downstream chemical manufacturers are heavily dependent on natural gas as a feedstock and power fuel, and the prospect of new shale gas resources holds the promise of more dependable and affordable supplies for the industry.

The EPA said that while the important role of hydraulic fracturing in developing US energy resources is recognised, “there are concerns that hydraulic fracturing may impact ground water and surface water quality in ways that threaten human health and the environment”.

Environmental groups have charged that chemical additives used in fracking have contaminated drinking water supplies, an allegation hotly contested by the energy industry.

Legislation pending in the US Congress would move regulation of hydraulic fracturing from longstanding state-level authority to the federal government, putting it under control of the EPA and a permitting process.

The American Petroleum Institute (API) said it expects the EPA study will “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”.

The institute said it hopes that EPA will provide ample opportunity for stakeholder comment and participation in the study. The agency noted in its announcement that it will seek extensive stakeholder input.

The API said that continued use of fracking is crucial because it is “enabling access to massive new supplies of natural gas trapped in shale formations across the US”.

Energy In Depth (EID), an energy industry advocacy group, said it hopes the EPA study will be based on objective and scientific analysis, and the group urged that congressional efforts to place fracking under EPA regulatory authority should be halted until the study is complete.

EID noted that top Obama administration energy advisor Carol Browner, then head of the EPA, said in a May 1995 ruling that there was no evidence that hydraulic fracturing has contaminated drinking water supplies and that the risk to water supplies from fracking was extremely remote.

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