By Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON, Dec 21 The Obama administration
issued the framework on Friday of a long-term study on whether
fracking for natural gas pollutes drinking water, but will not
make conclusions until 2014 about the controversial technique
that is helping to fuel a domestic drilling boom.
Critics of the Environmental Protection Agency study, called
for by Congress in 2010, complain it does not closely examine
the impact of drillers' injecting waste water deep underground,
a practise that has been linked to small earthquakes.
The progress report outlined case studies at drilling sites
in states including North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Texas that
will inform the final study.It also explained the scientific methods the EPA is using to
understand how drinking water supplies are affected by the
lifecycle of water used fracking. That cycle ranges from
withdrawing the water from ground and surface supplies to
treating it in wastewater plants.
Although conclusions are more than a year away, power
utilities, chemical companies and other big consumers of natural
gas fear the study could lead to more regulations and raise
costs as a result. Power generators, including American Electric
Power and Southern Co, have been enjoying rock
bottom prices for natural gas in recent years.
Fracking involves forcing large volumes of water laced with
chemicals and sand deep underground to crack rock and free oil
and natural gas. Critics of fracking, including many
environmentalists, worry drilling operations near schools and
homes can pollute water and air.
The drilling industry and some Republicans in Congress have
said the EPA study is overkill because fracking is safe.
The EPA's long-term study will examine the large volumes of
water sucked up by fracking operations, surface spills of
fracking fluids on well pads, and the drilling itself.
The study will also look at spills of so-called "flowback"
water that rushes up from wells when they start producing gas,
and how well wastewater treatment plants operate.
But the study does not closely look at the effects of
injecting waste water deep underground, a practice
environmentalists worry could become a dormant threat to water
Drillers say they are recycling more and more water used and
produced in fracking. But some of the waste is still injected
Ben Grumbles, a former assistant administrator for water at
the EPA, said injection of the waste is "legitimate and
Ohio recently linked the disposal method to a series of
small earthquakes and placed a moratorium on the injections but
lifted it in November.
Grumbles, who is now president of the U.S. Water Alliance,
said the omission of examining the practice was "not a fatal
flaw" of the study because he believes a different arm of the
EPA is doing research on waste water injection.
"They really do need to look at the issue," he said. "I
would hope the offices were coordinating and efforts to review
potential risks of large volumes of waste water being injected
... will be looked at, " he said.