EPA Releases Plan to Study Fracking, Jumps the Gun

false startYesterday, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally released its plan with specifics for how it will conduct research into the question of whether or not hydraulic fracturing contaminates, or otherwise negatively impacts, drinking water supplies. A copy of the 190-page plan is embedded below.

The first (preliminary) results from the study are due in 2012, but a final report is not due until 2014. In order to meet those deadlines, the EPA has already begun collecting field data and water samples. The problem is, that data was collected before the the plan itself was completed—before the rules for how the data collection should be done were established. Industry groups rightly have asked EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson how data collection for the study can begin before the methodology, the “how we will do this” part of the study was complete. It immediately calls into question the veracity of the data itself.

The EPA has “jumped the gun” by starting before the methodology was released. GIGO—garbage in, garbage out.

The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday released the outlines of its long-awaited probe into whether hydraulic fracturing — the unconventional drilling technique that’s led to a boom in domestic natural gas production — is contaminating drinking-water supplies.

Investigators will try to determine the impact of large-scale water withdrawals, aboveground spills of drilling fluids, and the fracturing process itself on water quality and quantity in states where tens of thousands of wells have been drilled in recent years.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves the high-pressure injection of millions of gallons of water, along with sand and chemical additives, deep underground to extract natural gas trapped in shale rock. Energy companies have greatly expanded their use of fracking as they tap previously unreachable shale deposits, including the lucrative Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania and neighboring states.

The industry has long contended that fracking is safe, but environmentalists and some residents who live near drilling sites say it has poisoned groundwater. The EPA study, mandated by Congress last year, is the agency’s first look at the impact of fracking in shale deposits.

EPA will examine drilling sites in Pennsylvania, Colorado, Louisiana, North Dakota and Texas. The earliest results will be available in 2012.

Industry groups said Thursday they are confident the study will vindicate their position that fracking does not harm the environment or human health.

"The industry has taken the lead in working with state regulators to constantly improve operations, industry practices and guidelines as well as improve communications with local communities," said Stephanie Meadows, a senior policy adviser at the American Petroleum Institute.

The institute and five other industry groups recently complained to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson that agency staff began collecting field data and water samples months before the study plan was finished. The industry groups, in an Oct. 20 letter to Jackson, also questioned the study design itself and said it could undermine the credibility of the findings.

The EPA said it began work over the summer so that it could finish the study by 2014.*

*AP/Colorado Springs The Gazette (Nov 3, 2011) – EPA to probe gas drilling’s toll on drinking water