The United States has an estimated 2,074 trillion cubic feet of natural gas locked away in the geologic formations below our feet. And until fairly recently, we didn't really have a good way of unlocking the gas from the tight seems in which it is embedded. That was the case until Halliburton brought a technique called hydraulic fracturing, or, 'fracking', onshore from its marine roots where it had been used for several decades to make offshore oil and gas wells more productive.
Although there have been no studies linking hydraulic fracturing to groundwater problems, and the most recent EPA investigation in 2004 turned up no major problems with the technique, high profile cases of spilled fracking fluid killing fish in Pennsylvania in 2009, and another case in Colorado where the water coming out of people's faucets was literally flammable, have caused a high degree of concern in the environmental community--and now the EPA--about the potential health and environmental impacts of fracking.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday that it will conduct a comprehensive study of the potential adverse impact on water quality and public health that fracking may have.
“Our research will be designed to answer questions about the potential impact of hydraulic fracturing on human health and the environment,” said Dr. Paul T. Anastas, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development in a statement. “The study will be conducted through a transparent, peer-reviewed process, with significant stakeholder input.”
Hydraulic fracturing is a process that drills vertical and horizontal cracks underground that help withdraw gas, or oil, from coalbeds, shale and other geological formations. The process usually involves vertical and horizontal drilling, and injecting fracturing fluids and sands into the formation at pressures of up to 35,000 PSI to aid in extracting the gas and managing the "leftover" waters.
Backers of a bill introduced into Congress called the FRAC Act are insisting EPA's move on fracking is not a surrogate for legislation that would require oil and gas companies to disclose the chemicals they use in the fracking process -- something they have been exempted from doing because they claimed the ingredients of the hydraulic fracturing liquid were proprietary.
"It is much like asking Coca-Cola to disclose the formula of Coke," said Halliburton executive, Ron Heyden, in 2008 testimony before the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission.
EPA said the $1.9 million study should be expected to be completed by 2012.