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EPA Draft Plan to Study Potential Drinking Water Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing Intensifies National Debate on Natural Gas Drilling

February 25, 2011

EPA released its Draft Plan to Study the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing on Drinking Water Resources on Feb. 7, 2011, adding fuel to the national debate over the heath risks posed by drilling for natural gas in vast portions of the country. EPA has set its sights on analyzing the complete “hydraulic fracturing water lifecycle” – from water withdrawals and storage, to the addition of fracturing chemicals, to the actual fracturing process, to retrieval, storage and disposal of the injected fracturing fluid – but will not address air or other potential impacts.

EPA’s Science Advisory Board (“SAB”) has scheduled a public meeting to review the Draft Plan on March 7-8, 2011 in Washington, D.C. The meeting agenda is here. There will be only two hours for public comment, limited to five minutes per speaker. A very short window to provide technical comments on the proposed research plan closes on February 28, 2011.


Gas extraction through hydraulic fracturing – also known as “fracking” (a term EPA avoids) – has become one of the most publicly recognized environmental issues of the day. The debate over fracking has built quietly for some time, and became more heated last year as gas exploration expanded into the shale fields of the Atlantic seaboard. See Fractured: The Road to the New EPA “Fracking” Study, Marten Law Environmental News (Sept. 17, 2010).

Since last fall, most of the news has been on debates over whether to allow more drilling. For example, after both houses of New York state’s legislature passed a moratorium, then-Governor Paterson vetoed it and imposed more limited restrictions by Executive Order. More recently, Hollywood has taken over the narrative: even those who don’t follow these sorts of issues have likely heard that Gasland – an anti-fracturing documentary much maligned by industry – was nominated for an Academy Award.

In the meantime, EPA has prepared its Draft Plan. Following a series of contentious public meetings regarding the study’s scope, the draft represents the agency’s announcement of what it plans to research, and everyone will find something to dislike. EPA has limited the study to drinking water resources, while many interest groups had called for an expansion into air and other impacts (see Draft Plan Chapter 11 for list of research areas EPA declined to incorporate). On the other hand, EPA has included research on the impact of water withdrawals and other activities beyond simply the fracturing itself, which some in industry believe is beyond Congress’s study request.

But putting aside the what, much of what EPA has published is focused on the how: EPA’s proposed methods for undertaking the study in the areas of inquiry it has identified. It is this new information that must now be reviewed and digested, and which EPA hopes to receive comment on.

The Proposed Research

The Draft Plan organizes EPA’s proposed research into five broader areas of inquiry based on EPA’s conception of the “water lifecycle” of hydraulic fracturing – 1) water acquisition, 2) chemical mixing, 3) well injection, 4) flowback and produced water, and 5) wastewater treatment and waste disposal. Each is discussed in turn below. However, although much of the proposed research is better explained in the context of EPA’s structure, EPA’s approach to “case studies” requires a bit of initial explanation.

In its proposed “case studies” program (described Draft Plan Chapter 7 and elsewhere throughout) EPA says that it intends to study five to eight locations where hydraulic fracturing has been performed, including three to five areas where instances of drinking water resource contamination from hydraulic fracturing have been reported or alleged (“retrospective” case studies), along with two to three sites where hydraulic fracturing is newly deployed (“prospective” case studies).

There has been much debate over whether hydraulic fracturing is actually responsible for some of the most widely reported purported water impacts (such as those in the film Gasland). The “retrospective” case studies are intended to “determine whether or not the reported impacts are due to hydraulic fracturing activities” (see Draft Plan Chapter 7.2). EPA selected five finalist sites from about 50 nominated by the public and prioritized based on the amount of data EPA concluded each would offer. The five finalists are counties in the Bakken Shale (ND); Barnett Shale (TX), Marcellus Shale (both northeast PA on the NY border, including Dimock Township, and at the border between PA and WV); and Raton Basin (CO). EPA will review existing data and conduct further sampling, monitoring, and modeling as it deems necessary to determine hydraulic fracturing’s contribution (if any) to drinking water pollution in these areas.

In the “prospective” case studies, EPA contemplates a different approach – “partnering with oil and natural gas companies and other stakeholders” to select several new drilling sites and observe their operations for one to two years. EPA’s purpose (less clearly explained) appears to be to understand and evaluate current industry practices and the impacts of these facilities over time, trading any element of surprise in its inspections for complete access to all aspects of the fracturing process.

With those preliminaries out of the way, the following five sections summarize EPA’s proposed study plan, based on EPA’s “water lifecycle” stages and guiding research questions.

Water Acquisition: How might large volume water withdrawals from ground and surface water impact drinking water resources? (Draft Plan Chapter 6.1)

EPA’s first inquiry involves water acquisition. Hydraulic fracturing in shale requires large amounts of water (2-4 million gallons per well estimated) to be withdrawn from a convenient source – ground or surface water – and shipped – by truck or pipeline – to the drill site. EPA intends to study how these withdrawals might impact water availability in the source area, and the water quality of source waterbodies.

To evaluate impacts on water availability, EPA intends to compile data on water use and hydrology in shale areas of North Dakota, Texas, Colorado, and Pennsylvania – intended to be a representative mix of arid and wet climates. Data will also be taken from at the “prospective” case study sites and analyzed to determine whether hydraulic fracturing is impacting ground and surface water flows there. In addition, EPA will construct models to examine the impact, in 10 years, of “full exploitation of non-conventional natural gas” and “average annual conditions … based on sustainable water use in hydraulic fracturing operations.”

To evaluate withdrawal impacts on water quality, EPA intends to again compile existing data on water quality in existing source waterbodies, and additional data from source waterbodies at the prospective case study sites, and analyze these data to determine whether any changes in water quality over time are due to the large volume water withdrawals associated with hydraulic fracturing.

Chemical Mixing: What are the possible impacts of releases of hydraulic fracturing fluids on drinking water resources? (Draft Plan Chapter 6.2)

Despite being shoehorned into the “mixing” stage of the “water lifecycle,” EPA’s next inquiry focuses on the potential health threats if the chemicals that are added to the withdrawn water to create fracturing fluids are released into drinking water. Hydraulic fracturing involves the mixture of water with chemicals and “proppant” agents (e.g., sand or tiny ceramic beads) to create the fracturing fluid that will be pumped into the gas well. EPA estimates that 15,000 to 60,000 gallons of chemical additives are used (depending on site-specific geologic factors) in the average 3 million gallons of water needed to fracture a single well.

The primary uncertainty in this study is the chemical makeup of the fracturing fluid. Although proposed many times, no law has yet been passed to require disclosure of these chemicals. EPA consequently has compiled a list of over 600 chemicals that publicly available information suggest have been or can be used in the process. EPA has also sent information requests to companies involved in the production of fracturing fluid, and expects to receive voluntary disclosure to fill out and firm up its list, and to clarify the relative concentrations of various chemical mixtures in use. Upon receipt of this information, EPA intends to review literature on the toxicity of the various chemicals identified, and, where available information is inadequate, perform its own toxicity studies (see Draft Plan Chapter 8).

EPA also seeks to better understand the potential for release and transport of the identified fracturing chemicals. EPA proposes to identify chemical markers that can be used to test for the presence of fracturing chemicals in drinking water, and will research and identify possible release pathways (e.g., leaking tanks) and ground infiltration and transportation characteristics. Finally, EPA will review (at the prospective case study sites) the effectiveness of current industry practices for responding to and addressing spills.

Well Injection: What are the possible impacts of the injection and fracturing process on drinking water resources? (Draft Plan Chapter 6.3)

This inquiry focuses on the potential for releases to drinking water during the fracturing process itself. To fracture shale and other gas-bearing formations, mixed fracturing fluid is injected at high pressure into the gas well, breaking open the gas-bearing formation. It is the impact of this process that is the least understood, and most controversial part of the fracturing debate. Industry has consistently cited the great depth of shale gas (far from drinking water resources) as an important factor in the technique’s safety, while landowners and environmental interests have argued that there must be some connection between reported drinking water contamination and nearby fracturing.

To address this, EPA has broken its study out into a number of sub-studies. First, EPA intends to review the potential for accidental release of fracking fluids directly into drinking water resources. Such releases are assumed to require a well malfunction, since the wells are supposed to be tightly sealed to depths far below and sealed off from drinking water. Therefore, EPA proposes to review the well files (which discuss instances of well failure) from a number of wells constructed in the last year. EPA will also investigate well integrity at its retrospective and prospective case study sites. EPA will also deploy computer models to assess well failure under fracturing conditions.

EPA also intends to examine the potential for fracturing fluids and naturally occurring substances (such as brine, heavy metals, methane or other subsurface formation materials) to migrate through natural and unexpected man-made pathways created by the fracturing process, into drinking water resources. This study will include a review of the case studies for such pathways, and computer model studies. Ultimately, EPA hopes to identify “areas of evaluation” – areas around wells, both surface and subsurface, that might be susceptible to contamination migration.

Finally, EPA plans to conduct laboratory testing to study the physical, chemical, and biological processes that occur in geologic formations subject to the chemicals and high pressures associated with hydraulic fracturing. EPA’s purpose is to determine whether any reactions might lead to the formation of unexpected toxics that would not otherwise have been associated with fracturing.

Flowback and Produced Water: What are the possible impacts of releases of flowback and produced water on drinking water resources? (Draft Plan Chapter 6.4)

Next, EPA proposes studying the potential for the water that comes out of the gas well after the fracturing to contaminate drinking water. In order to extract the gas, the fracturing fluids must first be extracted from the well – leaving the “proppant” (sand mixture) to hold open the fractures and allow gas to migrate up into the well. Furthermore, over the well’s lifetime it will naturally produce a small amount of water that contains chemicals. The extracted or produced fluids are then generally stored on-site for some period of time.

EPA first hopes to improve its understanding of the chemical composition of flowback and produced water. EPA has requested this data from industry, and will compile data from other sources and the prospective case studies. This investigation will be performed together with the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, which is independently studying radionuclide and volatile organics in flowback waters, to determine whether any unique characteristics can be identified that would enable agencies to test for releases of flowback waters into other waters.

EPA also intends to examine the potential for various storage methods (e.g., tanks or open pits) to introduce recovered waters into drinking water resources. EPA will collect information on past leaks and releases, and on current management practices from its prospective case studies, and will develop computer models to evaluate potential release scenarios.

Wastewater Treatment and Waste Disposal: What are the possible impacts of inadequate treatment of hydraulic fracturing wastewaters on drinking water resources? (Draft Plan Chapter 6.5)

Finally, EPA will examine the potential impact of the wastewater treatment and disposal process. Since direct release is regulated already, this study is limited to details such as the impact of various fracking chemicals on sewage treatment plants if flowback is disposed through public systems. EPA will follow on the existing research of the National Energy Technology Laboratory regarding the effectiveness of current treatment methods, and perform additional studies both in the lab and at the prospective case study sites.

Public Comment Opportunity Before EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board

As discussed above, EPA has submitted the Draft Plan to the agency’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) for review. The specific questions that EPA has asked the SAB to consider are available in EPA’s request letter to that panel. Generally, EPA asks that the SAB comment on:

  • the appropriateness of basing the plan on the “water lifecycle” concept;
  • whether the broad research areas that EPA has identified adequately cover the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources;
  • the adequacy of the proposed research approach, and particularly the use of case studies, existing data analysis, field monitoring, laboratory experiments, and modeling;
  • the adequacy of the specific proposed research activities (i.e., the activities shown in the above chart);
  • whether the proposed study will enable EPA to meet its goals of identifying key impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources, and provide relevant information on the risks associated with chemicals used in fracturing fluid.

Upon receipt of SAB’s comments, EPA intends to revise the study plan and commence the study. The agency expects to report “initial research results” in late 2012, and to publish a final report some time in 2014.

For more information about EPA’s proposed study, contact any member of the firm’s Energy, Water Quality or Water Resources practices.

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