EPA to study hydrofracturing
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will conduct a comprehensive study to investigate the potential environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing, a technique becoming more common with increased use of horizontal drilling to obtain natural gas. On March 18, the agency announced it had allocated $1.9 million to conduct the study, which it expects to complete in 2011.
Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as hydrofracking, is a process in which hundreds of thousands of gallons of fluid, chemicals and sand are pumped under pressure into underground rock layers to release natural gas.
Environmental groups claim hydrofracking poses a serious danger to underground aquifers and surface water, in many places a resource more precious than natural gas.ﾠ The Sierra Club formed a "hydrofracking team" to help local advocates prevent environmental damage from hydrofracking and to reform industry regulations so that they more effectively protect the public and the environment.
Industry representatives argue as much as 50 trillion cubic feet of natural gas could be recovered in the northeast U.S. using horizontal drilling and hydrofracking, helping the U.S. become independent of foreign energy sources.
As the EPA begins its investigation, a bill providing for stricter hydrofracking regulation died in the West Virginia legislature.
House Bill 4513 would have set additional reporting requirements for water withdrawals from streams, the contents of hydrofracking fluids and the location of waste water disposal. The bill also would have required drillers to have plans for handling water withdrawals and waste disposal prior to obtaining a drilling permit.
After passing in the House of Delegates by a vote of 89-9, the bill died in a Senate committee on March 8, the last day of the legislative session. The proposed law had been strongly opposed by industry advocates.
However, the legislature approved a new Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) rule requiring synthetic liners in hydrofracking storage pits and adding new design and construction standards for those pits.
In addition to the new rule, the DEP added a section to the drilling permit application, which requires drillers to report the sources of water withdrawals, the volume of water expected to be used and the time of year the withdrawals will occur.
The guidance document states, "a general rule of thumb should be to limit withdrawals during low flow conditions to no more than 10 percent of a stream's flow."
Prior to the new reporting requirement, drillers were required to report water withdrawals of more than 750,000 gallons in one month, only after the withdrawal had occurred.