EPA officials: ‘Sound science’ will guide hydraulic fracturing study

Obama administration officials today defended their plan for studying how drinking water may be affected by the hydraulic fracturing process used to extract natural gas from underground rock formations.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s congressionally mandated probe is set to conclude with a final report in 2014 and an interim one at the end of 2012, with some other, unscheduled updates.

But John Deutch, an MIT professor heading an Energy Department task force studying natural gas drillingon a much shorter time frame, said today that the EPA is taking too long. The “time scale is inconsistent with the public concern” about fracturing, Deutch said, during a panel meeting in Washington, D.C.

EPA officials said they were examining ways to speed up the process, but they insisted that it would be impossible to more quickly wrap up such a detailed study.

“We are looking at how to, wherever possible, do things in parallel rather than sequentially to accelerate any time frame we can,” said Paul Anastas, EPA’s assistant administrator for research and development. Data and public updates on the study will also be provided periodically during the next few years, Anastas added.

Oil and gas industry leaders separately have criticized the wide reach of the EPA study, which has been designed to evaluate the full lifespan of water in hydraulic fracturing— from its first acquisition, to its mixture with chemicals and the management of fluids that are produced from wells. The study responds to swelling public fears that drinking water supplies can be contaminated by natural gas migrating from poorly secured wells or improperly disposed wastewater produced at the sites.

Some environmental groups had lobbied for an even broader approach, including evaluations of how hydraulic fracturing affects air and other natural resources.

The EPA probe will include case studies in seven regions, including five areas where the agency is evaluating the effects of previous drilling. These retrospective case studies will be conducted in Dunn County, N.D., Wise and Denton counties, Texas; Bradford and Susquehanna counties, Pa.; Washington County, Pa., and Las Animas County, Colo. More than 40 locations were initially identified as potential study sites before being winnowed down.

Mark Zoback, a professor of geophysics at Stanford University, said he hoped the EPA study would go beyond simply documenting previous cases of water contamination to “understand why these occurred and prevent them in the future.”

Jeanne Briskin, a scientist with the EPA’s Office of Research and Development, said that if the agency concludes there has been an impact on water, investigators will “look forensically to what might have contributed to or caused that impact.” That includes looking at “what else is in the area,” including drilling that may have been done decades before.

“We’re trying to understand what was the process that led to that drinking water contamination and was that process related to hydraulic fracturing,” Briskin added.

The EPA will work with individual companies to get more data for its study, and industry representatives already have agreed to cooperate with two prospective case studies examining the life cycle of wells in DeSoto Parish, La., and Washington County, Pa.

Anastas insisted an EPA commitment to “sound science” was driving the study.

“When there are public concerns that have been raised — when there are concerns raised by the public — we have an obligation to carry it out with the most sound science that we can bring to bear,” Anastas said.

Anastas pledged that the agency was trying to focus on the most important and relevant questions about hydraulic fracturing, without getting distracted by the thousands of possible questions scientists could be answering. The EPA is aiming “to complement the work going on” at other federal agencies and research institutions, rather than “duplicating” their efforts, Anastas said.

Also today at the natural gas forum:

  • John Williams, a USGS groundwater expert from Troy, N.Y., described how companies have worked to shrink their environmental footprint and better contain the waste produced at drilling sites.
    “Many companies have gone to a closed loop system where the drilling fluid, the cuttings — everything — do not touch the ground,” Williams said. Companies are disposing of cuttings by mixing them with sawdust and wood chips before shipping them to landfills.
  • Deutch and other panel members said there were far few federal dollars dedicated to researching hydraulic fracturing.
    Given the “high degree of importance and the high degree of interest” in the subject, the federal research budget on shale gas is too low, said Daniel Yergin, chairman of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates.
    Rich Haut, a scientist with the Houston Advanced Research Center, noted that the group’s research into environmentally friendly drilling would not have gotten off the ground without initial seed money from the Energy Department.
  • Frank Verrastro, who heads energy programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the explosion in the amount of natural gas that is technically (but not necessarily economically) recoverable, has been driven by technological advancements.
    Decades ago, when fracturing was first used, companies saw a surge of high-pressure production with quick decline rates of 50 to 60 percent over just 14 months. “The concern was that if you have this huge peak — if you don’t have a long tail — you’re going to have to keep drilling a lot of wells to keep your production up,” Verrastro said. But ultimately, industry has been successful in prolonging well production.
    Additionally, oil and gas companies have been able to push their recovery rates higher, Verrastro said. In some cases, companies are drilling in areas where natural gas is locked in layers of shale formation stacked on top of each other. When that is the case, “from the same platform, you can drill another well to this new level,” Verrastro said. “So without changing your footprint, you can be producing from a number of different zones.”