EPA Releases Update on Ongoing Fracking Study

Jan 2013 // ABA Energy Litigation Section: News and Developments

In December 2012, the EPA released an update on its ongoing study of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” The study, commissioned by Congress in 2010, is looking at fracking’s impact on drinking water. It will not look at the effects of injecting wastewater deep underground, which some critics claim causes small earthquakes and threatens water supplies. The study so far has examined samples from five sites in Colorado, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Texas. The studies in North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Texas are in shale plays and were chosen because they had experienced well blowouts that leaked fracking fluids or because area homeowners had complained about the decline in the quality of the drinking water.

The update on the study does not offer conclusions as of yet but instead outlines the issues to be explored. The study will look at the impact of the following:

  • large-volume water withdrawals from ground and surface waters on drinking-water resources
  • surface spills on or near well pads of hydraulic-fracturing fluids on drinking-water resources
  • injection and fracturing process on drinking-water resources
  • surface spills on or near well pads of flowback and produced water on drinking-water resources
  • inadequate treatment of hydraulic-fracturing wastewaters on drinking-water resources

The EPA also announced several changes to the study’s research plan since the publication of the initial study plan. It now plans to use and analyze data gathered in FracFocus, a new national registry of chemicals used in fracking that was jointly commissioned by the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission in 2011. The original study plan also identified DeSoto Parish, Louisiana, within the Haynesville Shale, as a site for case study. Due to scheduling conflicts, though, this site will no longer be a party of the study. The EPA will also no longer conduct high-throughput screening assays of certain chemicals used in fracking or detected in flowback and produced water, per the recommendations of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board. Finally, because the Department of Energy is already studying the interactions between fracking and various rock formations, the EPA has decided not to look at this issue. Thus the study will no longer look at (1) how fracking fluids might change the fate and transport of substances in the subsurface through geochemical interactions and (2) the chemical, physical, and toxicological properties of substances in the subsurface that may be released by fracking.

The EPA does not expect the study to be completed until 2014.