The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on Thursday that it will conduct a comprehensive research study to investigate the potential adverse impact that hydraulic fracturing may have on water quality and public health.

Hydraulic fracturing is a process that drills vertical and horizontal cracks underground that help withdraw gas, or oil, from coalbeds, shale, and other geological formations. Though each site is unique, in general, the process involves vertical and horizontal drilling, taking water from the ground, injecting fracturing fluids and sands into the formation, and withdrawing gas and separating and managing the leftover waters.

There are concerns that the process may impact ground water and surface water quality in ways that threaten human health and the environment. To address these concerns and strengthen our clean energy future, and in response to language inserted into the fiscal year 2010 Appropriations Act, the EPA said it is reallocating $1.9 million for this comprehensive, peer-reviewed study for FY10 and requesting funding for FY11 in the president’s budget proposal.

"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 the EPA’s Office of Research and Development. "The study will be conducted through a transparent, peer-reviewed process, with significant stakeholder input."

The EPA is in the very early stages of designing a hydraulic fracturing research program. The agency is proposing the process begin with (1) defining research questions and identifying data gaps; (2) conducting a robust process for stakeholder input and research prioritization; (3) with this input, developing a detailed study design that will undergo external peer-review; leading to (4) implementing the planned research studies.

To support this initial planning phase and guide the development of the study plan, the agency is seeking suggestions and comments from the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB)—an independent, external federal advisory committee. The agency has requested that the Environmental Engineering Committee (EEC) of the SAB evaluate and provide advice on the EPA’s proposed approach. The agency will use this advice and extensive stakeholder input to guide the design of the study. A Federal Register notice was issued March 18, announcing a SAB meeting April 7-8.

Some representatives of the energy sector disagree with the study. For example, in a recent editorial in the Boston Globe, Thomas Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, commented that "the Environmental Protection Agency has never been tasked with regulating hydraulic fracturing. There is no credible or compelling reason to add another layer of bureaucracy to a process that state regulators are carrying out in a timely, fair, and responsible manner."

Sources: EPA, Boston Globe