The US Environmental Protection Agency announced on November 3, 2011, that it finalized a plan to study the impact of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) – a method to extract natural gas from shale formations – on water by examining its mixture with chemicals, use of water in fracking, management of flowback liquids, as well as their treatment and disposal. The EPA study, mandated by Congress, would be released by the end of 2012, with a final report due in 2014.
While the shale gas industry maintains that the time-tested hydraulic fracturing method is not a problem, it admitted cases when natural gas migrated from drilling (not fracking) to the surface of drinking water wells. However, it has been also hard to prove whether presence of methane in drinking water was due to drilling. For example, Pennsylvania Secretary of Environmental Protection and chief regulator of natural gas exploration in Pennsylvania, Michael Krancer, said that Pennsylvania “had shallow gas formations for centuries,” which has caused methane to pass through to private water supplies. According to a study done by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), water contamination cases near drilling sites had to do with poor well construction, not the fracking itself.
At a minimum, there seems to be an agreement between the gas industry and environmentalists that natural gas is a necessary clean energy source. From that starting point and given that shale gas production in the US has revolutionized the gas industry, increasing from next to nothing in 2000 to over 13 billion cubic feet a day now, it is hard to imagine how it could be curtailed under the existing pressure from some environmental groups. There is a strong belief that that shale gas could fuel the US economy towards growth. Advocates of shale gas industry are confident that the EPA study would validate that fracking poses no major threat to public health and the environment. While it is hard to bet on that, the EPA study may demand full disclosure of chemicals and their contents used in fracking and the efficient use and disposal of flowback water – measures that this new industry has already begun taking.