On December 21, 2012, EPA released a progress report on its study of the potential impacts on drinking water of hydraulic fracturing operations.   The study, which was started in 2011, was commissioned by the House of Representatives in 2009 and is due , in final form, in 2014.

The study, as directed by Congress, is intended to focus on the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water, but, in reality, looks at the drinking water impacts from all stages of well completion.  Despite the limited scope clearly directed by Congress, many environmental groups pushed EPA, in earlier scoping comments, for a study that examines all types of potential impacts from hydraulic fracturing, including air impacts, impacts on waste streams, occupational health impacts, and socioeconomic impacts.EPA rejected those calls for a broad multimedia analysis and, we believe, appropriately limited the study to five drinking water quality issues:

  1. Water Acquisition.   Hydraulic fracturing requires a large volume of water.  EPA examined the impact on water supplies in those areas with significant hydraulic fracturing activity.   Water acquisition issues are important in western regions where water availability is limited and water rights are strictly regulated.   It is also an important issue, however, in regions like the Marcellus region, where water withdrawals often come from rivers and streams prized for their trout fishing.
  2. Hydraulic Fracturing Fluid Spills – Even though hydraulic fracturing fluid is 99.5% water and sand, even a ratio of 0.5% chemicals is significant when hydraulic fracturing fluids are used in such a high volume.  Concern has arisen, therefore, about the impact of potential spills of such chemicals during the hydraulic fracturing process.
  3. Well Injection – in addition to the concern about the potential impact of surface spills of hydraulic fracturing fluid, there is obvious concern about the impact of the injection of such fluid.  EPA is looking at the potential for migration of such fluid from deep fracturing processes into relatively shallow drinking water supplies.   This potential impact is perhaps the post publicized and misunderstood impacts of hydraulic fracturing.  In the more than a million wells that have been hydraulically fractured in the past 60 years, there has never been an instance of drinking water contamination from hydraulic fracturing – presumably because there is often more than a mile of non-porous rock between the fracturing operations and the aquifer.
  4. Flowback/Produced water – Hydraulic fracturing not only uses large volumes of water, it also unlocks large volumes of water from deep formations that flows to the surface.   Such produced water is often highly saline.   EPA is studying the impact of that produced water (and hydraulic fracturing fluid that returns to the surface) if such a mixture were spilled. 
  5. Wastewater Treatment and Disposal – As noted above, hydraulic fracturing uses a large amount of water, some of which must be treated and disposed of.   EPA is looking at disposal processes and the ability of treatment facilities, where wastewater is often sent, to remove contaminants, including naturally occurring radioactive material.   The study will also look at industry’s very aggressive efforts to recycle waste water safely and efficiently. 

EPA is relying on a multitude of information sources and scientific techniques to complete this study.   It is conducting toxicity assessments of over 1,000 chemicals “reportedly used” in hydraulic fracturing fluid, modeling potential impacts of numerous hypothetical water use/management scenarios, and conducting lab tests to determine the efficacy of water treatment facilities to remove contaminants like radium, metals, and bromides that are commonly associated with hydraulic fracturing wastewaters.   The Agency is conducting a data review of a large body of well data, most of which was voluntarily supplied by oil and gas companies. Finally, EPA is relying on case studies.  It has conducted water sampling at five locations in Pennsylvania, Colorado, North Dakota, and Texas where there is evidence of impaired water quality.   EPA is also planning two additional prospective studies in Haynesville and Marcellus formations.  These  case studies are important because, if done properly, they will provide a pre-drilling water quality baseline from which to compare water quality impairment.   Absent such an analysis, there is no way to credibly attribute water quality impacts to hydraulic fracturing.   While industry has been working with EPA cooperatively from the initial scoping of the study, we expect they will be most interested in making sure EPA gets these prospective case studies right, and will be looking for ways to continue to work collaboratively with EPA through the next two years of the study.