US EPA issues final fracking study plan amid industry doubts

03 November 2011 21:23  [Source: ICIS news]

WASHINGTON (ICIS)--The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Thursday issued its final plan for a two-year study of hydraulic fracturing, and the US energy sector voiced concern about the plan’s scientific validity.

The EPA said that its final research plan – requested by Congress and under development since March 2010 – has been designed “to better understand potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources”.

Hydraulic fracturing, generally known as “fracking”, is the process of injecting water, sand and chemical additives into deep shale formations to free up natural gas.

In combination with horizontal drilling, the fracking process has been instrumental in opening vast new US supplies of shale gas over the last ten years.

The newly abundant reserves of shale gas have revolutionised the domestic US energy profile, and US petrochemical producers have called shale gas developments a feedstock breakthrough for the chemicals industry.

Continued access to new shale gas resources is critical to the US petrochemicals sector, which is heavily dependent on natgas as both a feedstock and an energy fuel.

The EPA said its research plan will look at the full cycle of water in fracking, from acquisition of water supplies, the mixing of chemicals and actual injection processes, as well as the management, treatment and disposal of flowback water.

The agency said its final plan for the fracking study has been reviewed by an independent panel of scientists to ensure “a scientifically sound approach”.

However, the American Petroleum Institute (API) voiced concerns on Thursday that the EPA plan may be flawed to the extent that a “credible and scientifically defensible result” may not be possible.

Although the institute said it would reserve judgement on the EPA plan until it has had a chance to review the details, it cited a letter drafted by a group of energy sector associations that raised objections to the then-developing EPA study.

Among other concerns, API said that EPA had already begun to collect field data on fracking before the final protocols and quality controls have been published.

Despite the lack of a final study plan, said API, the agency began collecting data from drilling companies and at specific sites in Pennsylvania in August this year.

“This issue is crucial to the integrity of the study since, without an approved and appropriate protocol – and, more importantly, without clear study goals – it will be difficult to ascertain the quality and appropriateness of any of the data collected, samples obtained and conclusions reached,” the institute said.

In the letter sent to EPA two weeks ago, the institute and other energy stakeholders charged that certain actions taken by the agency in advance of its final plan “call EPA’s claims of commitment to the scientific process, public transparency and stakeholder input into question”.

The EPA said that the steps it took in August were needed to provide a foundation for the final study plan and that the sampling and data collected were supported by the agency’s independent scientific board.

But that scientific panel itself has been the target of energy industry criticism, including charges that its members were heavily slanted toward the environmental and academic communities with little or no representation of hands-on energy industry specialists.

EPA said it expects to have initial research results and study findings available for the public sometime next year, with a final report not due until an unspecified date in 2014.

A separate study of shale gas development is under way by the US Department of Energy.

By: Joe Kamalick
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