Environmental Protection Agency to study controversial gas drilling method

The U.S. EPA on Thursday spelled out plans to study the water quality and health effects of “hydraulic fracturing,” a controversial method of tapping natural gas supplies that some Democrats want more tightly regulated.

“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 prepared statement. “The study will be conducted through a transparent, peer-reviewed process, with significant stakeholder input.”

The agency plans to use $1.9 million in current-year funding and is seeking further funding in the fiscal year 2011 budget.The issue is playing an increasingly prominent role in energy debates. The gas drilling method, dubbed “fracking,” involves high-pressure injections of chemicals, water and sand to break apart rock formations to access gas trapped inside.

The increasing viability of tapping gas from these shale rock formations has helped boost proved U.S. gas reserves to their highest level in over 30 years, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.

That’s especially important because lawmakers increasingly see natural gas – which emits far less carbon dioxide when burned than coal or oil – as a key part of efforts to curb U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

But at the same time, the increasing use of fracking has prompted concern among environmentalists that it will contaminate groundwater supplies and endanger human health in communities adjacent to drilling sites.

Several Democrats led by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) are pushing legislation to close what’s been dubbed the “Halliburton loophole” after the drilling services company. The bill would overturn a provision in a major 2005 energy law that exempts the practice from key Safe Drinking Water Act regulations. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) recently launched an investigaton into industry fracking practices as well.

Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), who authored language in fiscal year 2010 spending legislation that urged EPA to do the study, applauded EPA’s action Thursday.

“This is an important step toward ensuring that natural gas drilling is done in a way that protects our environment, vital natural resources and public health.  It is also a necessary step since the EPA's 2004 study on the matter was marred by biased data influenced by senior officials in the previous administration,” said Hinchey, a co-sponsor of DeGette’s measure.

Industry groups are strongly opposing new federal regulation, arguing that it would impose new costs that make some gas production uneconomical. They contend that fracking – which has been around for decades – has a proven safety record and that state laws provide adequate protection.

“We expect the study to confirm what 60 years of experience and investigation have already demonstrated: that hydraulic fracturing is a safe and well understood technology for producing oil and natural gas,” said the American Petroleum Institute in response to the EPA announcement. “We hope the agency will provide ample opportunity for stakeholder comment and participation during the course of its study.  Our members are experts on well construction and development and on safe and effective hydraulic fracturing operations.”

An EPA announcement of the study says the agency is in the early stages of designing its research program and is seeking input from its Science Advisory Board.