Fracking Study May Expose Natural Gas Industry To Regulation

You've heard the bad news: that scientists have linked hydraulic fracturing of shale—a method crucial to the extraction of vast reserves of natural gas in the United States—to increased levels of methane in adjacent drinking water wells.
Now the good news: they found no evidence that toxic drilling chemicals had infiltrated drinking water.
There's also news that could be good or bad, depending on politics and perspective: the study may open the largely unregulated practice of hydraulic fracturing to regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Without a doubt it will unleash a new wave of studies and monitoring.
"We found no evidence for contamination of drinking-water samples with deep saline brines or fracturing fluids," write the four scientists from Duke University in their study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"We conclude that greater stewardship, data, and— possibly—regulation are needed to ensure the sustainable future of shale-gas extraction and to improve public confidence in its use."
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempted hydraulic fracturing operations from the Safe Drinking Water Act, freeing drilling companies from the obligation to disclose the chemicals injected into deep shale formations to shatter shale and convey gas back to the well.
The Duke study gives the government cause to revisit that exemption, and as if it anticipated the study's release, the Obama Administration positioned itself earlier this week to do just that. The president and Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced the formation of a blue ribbon panel to recommend best practices for the safe extraction of shale gas.
Fracking fluids are believed to contain, in addition to water, benzene, ethylbenzene, formaldehyde, methanol, naphthalene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, toluene, xylene, boric acid, hydrochloric acid, isopropanol, and diesel fuel.
The formula used at each well may be guarded as a trade secret.
Drillers are only required to disclose the use of diesel fuel, by applying for a permit.
The water produced by the wells is usually treated, recycled, discharged into the environment, or injected back underground. The Energy Department has been funding efforts to clean up that water, and recently announced a breakthrough technology, using a material called Osorb.
The methane found by the Duke scientists is not considered a health hazard in drinking water. It can be easily removed by aeration at the well head. It does pose a risk through its potential to concentrate in an enclosed space, which could lead to explosion or asphyxiation.
The Duke scientists simultaneously published a white paper listing research and policy recommendations (pdf). In the white paper, they suggest the health effects of methane have been understudied, and they call for further research.
"We found essentially no peer‐reviewed research on its health effects at lower concentrations in water or air," they write.
Whether or not further research establishes toxicity for methane, the scientists call upon the government to consider regulating the industry, possibly through the FRAC Act, a bill pending in Congress:
In our view, the inclusion of hydraulic fracturing in the SDWA, whether this is accomplished through the passage of the FRAC Act or through some other means, would strengthen public confidence in hydraulic fracturing and natural‐gas extraction.
The scientists also call for full disclosure of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing.
The key issue is whether hydraulic fracturing itself can increase leaks of methane or other contaminants all the way to the surface. When gas wells are thousands of feet deep – and far below the shallow aquifers that typically provide drinking water – contamination is often stated to be impossible due to the distance between the well and the drinking water. Although this seems reasonable in most (and possibly all) cases, field and modeling studies should be undertaken to confirm this assumption.
They made the following recommendations for further research:
Initiate Medical Review of the Health Effects of Methane
Construct a National Database of Methane, Ethane, and Propane Concentrations and Other Chemical Attributes in Drinking Water
Evaluate the Mechanisms of Methane Contamination in Drinking Water
Refine Estimates for Greenhouse‐Gas Emissions of Methane Associated with Shale‐Gas Extraction
Systematically Sample Drinking Water Wells and Deep Formation Waters
Study Disposal of Waste Waters from Hydraulic Fracturing and Shale Gas Extraction
The Duke scientists are Stephen G. Osborn, Avner Vengosh, Nathaniel R. Warner, and Robert B. Jackson. Brooks Rainey Pearson of Duke's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions also contributed to the white paper.

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