On July 19, 2013, the U.S. Department of Energy released to the Associated Press its preliminary results from a study on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which found no evidence that chemicals from certain natural gas drilling activities in Pennsylvania have contaminated the drinking water.  The study focuses on aquifers at a drilling site in the Marcellus Shale formation in Greene County, Pennsylvania, which is southwest of Pittsburgh and borders West Virginia.  

The DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) is conducting the ongoing study.  In an effort to understand the drilling chemicals’ impact, NETL has been monitoring the fate of drilling fluids laced with unique markers injected more than 8,000 feet below the surface.  This study marks the first time the government has injected tracers into a drilling company’s hydraulic fracturing fluid and monitored the results.  The preliminary results show that the potentially dangerous substances have remained a safe distance from the surface drinking water, which is usually no deeper than 500 feet below the surface.  To date, the chemicals from the drilling fluids have not been detected in a monitoring zone at a depth of 5,000 feet and the man-made fractures have all remained at least 6,000 feet below the surface.  While NETL has stated that no contamination has been detected, it also cautioned that the results are too preliminary to be conclusive. A final report is expected by the end of 2013. 

Regardless of the final results, the NETL study’s impact will likely be limited. The NETL study does not account for other potential methods of contamination, including poor well construction or surface spills of chemicals or wastewater.  Further, drilling chemicals vary by company and region and this study only evaluates the mix of chemicals and drilling methods used at this particular site.  At the request of Congress, U.S. EPA is conducting a significantly more in depth study, evaluating the potential impacts of each phase of the hydraulic fracturing lifecycle on the nation’s drinking water resources. EPA anticipates releasing its draft study report for public comment and peer review in 2014.  Squire Sanders will continue to provide updates on these hydraulic fracturing studies as they become available.