New panel to advise EPA on ‘fracking’

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Monday announced the formation of an independent body to peer-review that agency’s research on hydraulic fracturing, as the Obama administration weighs new regulations.

The Hydraulic Fracturing Research Advisory Panel, a group of 31 academics and experts, was created by EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) to review a congressionally ordered report looking at the potential health impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water.

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The group’s formation also comes as administration officials, with plenty of outside help, are working to revise draft rules on the practice. Hydraulic fracturing, known as “fracking,” involves high-pressure injections of water, chemicals and sand into shale formations to open seams that enable hydrocarbons to flow.

Proponents, including the energy industry, say fracking technology has unlocked vast amounts of oil and gas that were previously out of reach and can help set the nation on a course toward energy independence. Environmental groups and other critics warn that the chemicals involved could have dire consequences for the environment and could be detrimental to public health.

Three years ago, EPA announced plans to study those impacts following a request from Congress. The advisory panel was established to provide scientific feedback. The draft report is due out next year.

“Our final report on the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources must be based on sound science and take into account the latest practices being used by the industry,” Acting Administrator Bob Perciasepe said in a written statement. “We have worked to ensure that the study process be open and transparent throughout, and the SAB panel is another example of our approach of openness and scientific rigor.”

Meanwhile, administration officials continue to craft regulations.

Earlier this year, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) pulled back a proposed rule on fracking after a flood of negative comments. The agency sent an updated draft of the proposal to the White House on Jan. 22.

Though details of the proposed regulations have not been released, groups on both sides of the issue are trying to influence the final language.

Over the last two months, administration officials have held nine meetings about fracking with industry executives and environmental groups, according to records made public by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Most recently, the Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, American Water Works Association and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) met with officials last Tuesday. A week prior to that, three NRDC representatives sat down with BLM and White House officials.

Industry has also had a big seat at the table. In February, the American Natural Gas Association, Apache, Devon Energy, Newfield Exploration, WPX Energy and Anadorko Petroleum met with the administration about the rule.