US EPA announces nationwide plans to study fracking impacts

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Department’s state presence could influence future federal & state regulation

As a follow-up from Enhesa’s June 2011 Flash coverage on recent U.S. concerns over hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), Enhesa would like to share additional developments on this issue that heighten the probability of more stringent federal and state regulation. Ongoing concerns raised by citizens, politicians, and interest groups about the potential impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water have pushed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to determine the validity of this unrest in light of the growing importance of natural gas in the U.S.’s clean energy future.  On 23 June 2011, the EPA announced plans to conduct a draft study of the impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water by conducting case studies in seven U.S. sites.

The scope of the study will involve analyzing the full process of hydraulic fracturing from the acquisition of water to the mixing of chemicals, through the ultimate treatment and disposal of produced water.  The sites were identified, prioritized, and selected based on factors such as the site’s proximity to human population and drinking water supplies, evidence of impaired water quality, health and environmental concerns, and unique geological or hydrological features.

The EPA has classified the seven sites into prospective case studies and retrospective case studies.  The prospective case studies will take place in the Haynesville Shale in DeSoto Parish, Louisiana, and the Marcellus Shale in Washington County, Pennsylvania.  The purpose of the prospective case study sites is to give the EPA the ability to monitor key aspects of the hydraulic fracturing process at future hydraulic fracturing sites.

The remaining sites will be classified by the EPA as retrospective case studies, which will investigate reported drinking water contamination and nearby hydraulic fracturing operations.  The retrospective sites will be located in the Bakken Shale in Killdeer and Dunn Counties in North Dakota; the Barnett Shale in Wise and Denton Counties in Texas; the Marcellus Shale in Bradford and Susquehanna Counties of Pennsylvania; the Marcellus Shale in Washington County; and the Raton Basin in Los Animas County, Colorado.

The EPA’s presence at specific site locations in the states is the first federal study, authorized by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010, which will analyze the impact of hydraulic fracturing.  The results of this study could provide the basis for future federal regulation of the natural gas industry.  Although some natural gas producing states have state regulations in place to protect groundwater, the absence of federal regulation has been a point of controversy for critics of EPA’s response to alleged groundwater contamination.  The current federal regulatory scheme excludes most hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).  Only hydraulic fracturing that uses diesel fuel is subject to the SDWA and is required to receive prior authorization from the EPA’s Underground Injection Control (UIC) program.

The EPA study has the potential to influence future regulation of the natural gas industry, as any new regulation or amendment to existing federal programs would also impact state regulations.  The EPA expects the study to begin as early as this fall and continue at most sites at least through 2012. If you are interested in what Enhesa offers to address these developments and other coverage specific to the oil & gas industry, please contact Enhesa at info@enhesa.com to learn more.

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