Reversing a stand it took six years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will launch a $1.9 million research program to learn whether a technology that has spurred a boom in domestic natural gas production poses a threat to drinking water and public health.
In 2004, in a study that was not comprehensive or scientifically rigorous, the EPA said that hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) of coalbed methane wells to extract embedded natural gas deposits “poses little or no threat” to drinking water supplies.The study included no testing, however. It examined only drilling of coalbed methane wells even though fracking is used in virtually all natural gas and oil wells. Coalbed methane wells are a small percentage of the total. An EPA whistleblower later denounced the study for its shoddy science and industry-influenced review panel.
Since then, natural gas companies have embarked on massive drilling projects from coast to coast, peppering the landscape with toxic waste pits and derricks and promising an vast new supply of domestic, relatively low-carbon energy.
Drillers have recently targeted the Marcellus Shale, a vast formation that lies below a wide swath of the Northeast from upstate New York to West Virginia, some of it overlapping watersheds that supply drinking water to tens of millions of people in New York City, Philadelphia and other major metropolitan areas.
Despite industry assurances that the process is no threat to drinking water supplies, a growing number of people from Pennsylvania to Colorado have reported that their well water became undrinkable – and in some cases flammable – after gas drillers used fracking in the vicinity. The technology involves injecting a potent concoction of water, sand and toxic chemicals into wells at high pressure to open up fissures and release the trapped gas.
Gasland, a documentary film by Pennsylvanian Josh Fox that was featured this week at Washington’s Environmental Film Festival, documented multiple cases of water contamination linked to fracking. Last year, the independent journalism website Pro Publica reported that it found more than 1,000 similar cases of contamination.
Last year, major drilling companies repeatedly rebuffed requests from Environmental Working Group (EWG) for details of the chemicals used in fracking. In February, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) asked eight leading drilling companies for similar data and disclosed that two of them had fracked with diesel, a toxic substance that requires a permit under federal law. It is unclear whether the companies obtained the necessary permits. The House of Representatives inserted language in the 2010 federal budget urging the EPA to study fracking’s potential risks.
The EPA said it was “in the very early stages” of designing its research program and gave no timetable for its completion. It said in a statement that it would seek input from all stakeholders and its own Science Advisory Board in shaping the study.
EWG’s Richard Wiles, senior vice president for policy and communications, applauded EPA’s announcement but said much more definitive actions are necessary to protect water supplies until the questions about fracking’s risks have been answered.
“It’s crazy to drill tens of thousands of wells in watersheds serving millions of people until we know whether these irreplaceable aquifers are in danger,” Wiles said. “We just have to say NO to drilling in these areas until we have all the facts, and right now we just have no idea what the consequences could be.”
He also called on Congress to repeal the exemptions that oil and gas companies have from most major federal environmental laws and regulations, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. Those provisions specifically exempt fracturing from federal oversight unless it involves diesel.
“This technology works by injecting into the ground a scary mix of chemicals that include known carcinogens and neurotoxins in combinations that industry has tried to keep secret,” Wiles said. “We can’t just blithely assume that this is going to be risk-free. We’ve got to stop drilling in areas where water supplies could be in danger until we have the answers.”
Responding to the EPA’s announcement, the American Petroleum Institute, a leading industry trade group, said in a statement posted on its website that, “We expect the study to confirm what 60 years of experience and investigation have already demonstrated: that hydraulic fracturing is a safe and well understood technology for producing oil and natural gas.”
Gas from shale deposits currently provides 20 percent of the US natural gas supply and will account for 50 percent by 2035, according to estimates issued this month by IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates Inc., an energy consulting firm.