Obama's frack study to look past water

The $45 million multi-agency study of hydraulic fracturing proposed by the Obama administration in its 2013 budget blueprint represents an effort to broaden the examination of shale gas drilling from just water to air quality and other environmental concerns.

It also seeks to put into action some of the recommendations of the panel tasked by the administration with examining the safety of hydraulic fracturing.

"We need to ensure we have the best science available as hydraulic fracturing will continue," said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. "We have to make sure that as fracking continues on those lands it's being done in a safe and responsible way."

Interior's U.S. Geological Survey, the Department of Energy and U.S. EPA are developing a "memorandum of understanding" for the study to lay out the responsibilities of each agency. The memorandum, budget documents said, will seek to emphasize the expertise of each agency.

"This effort will promote a better understanding of potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing and complement current hydraulic fracturing research efforts," administration officials said in budget documents. "This research will help our nation to safely and prudently develop oil and gas resources."


EPA budget documents indicate that the agency sees some continuity between the new proposal and an ongoing study of how hydraulic fracturing affects drinking water.

That alarms some in industry, who have viewed the ongoing EPA study with growing worry. Those concerns intensified in December, when EPA issued a draft study finding that hydraulic fracturing chemicals had contaminated groundwater in Pavillion, Wyo. The report did not indicate that the fracturing chemicals were in the water used for drinking by people in the small community.

"Before EPA attempts to significantly expand its study mandate beyond what was authorized by Congress, it makes sense to see how it performs under its current mandate," said Chris Tucker, spokesman for the industry group Energy In Depth. "Serious questions need to be answered before we divert tens of millions of dollars in additional funding into new and, at this point, fairly ill-defined study areas."

But environmentalists say it is about time for the federal government to take a comprehensive look at the boom in oil and gas drilling across the country made possible by advances in the technique of hydraulic fracturing.

"President Obama is right, we need a massive new wave of research into the risks of fracking that are facing communities across the nation," said Amy Mall of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Communities across the country are concerned about threats to their clean air and drinking water, and our federal agencies should bring their scientific expertise to bear on understanding these risks and figuring out how best to prevent or reduce them."

Mall was also pleased that Obama's DOE is proposing to divert money to the study from a program that has done research on oil and gas production. She said the program, created during the George W. Bush administration, does research that primarily benefits industry rather than the general public.

Under Obama, DOE has repeatedly sought to end the program, but Congress has kept it going.

Given industry opposition, the administration's new proposed study faces a difficult path finding funding in the Republican House. And there is no indication that Congress would be any more willing to end the Bush-era program than in previous years. But budget documents indicate that administration officials may seek to use their discretion to divert existing sources of oil and gas research funding to examining the effects of drilling on human health and the environment.

"Absent congressional action to repeal, the administration seeks to refocus its 2012 activities to support research and development with significant potential public benefits," White House budget officials wrote, saying such efforts would be consistent with the administration panel, which made recommendations to "minimize the potential risks and improve the environmental, health, and safety performance of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas development."

EPA's budget documents said that while the agency wants to examine the health effects of drilling, it wants to do so "while maximizing the benefits of hydraulic fracturing practices."

As part of the study, EPA is proposing to do ambient air monitoring and assessments of health effects associated with drilling and hydraulic fracturing. In addition, it is proposing systems-based sustainability analyses that include environmental, social and economic dimensions. The agency says it wants to "address the potential impacts of HF on air quality, water quality, and ecosystems."

The first installment of the ongoing study of the effect of fracturing and drilling on groundwater is due out late this year. The proposal, EPA said in budget documents, "will complement the EPA's current study on potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water."

The ongoing study was started at the request of Democrats in Congress concerned about water quality. It has become a focal point of contention between industry and activists (Greenwire, Nov. 3, 2011).

The administration panel that looked into shale gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing, formally known as the Natural Gas Subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board, found that many of the environmental and safety concerns of drilling critics were justified (Greenwire, Aug. 11, 2011). In addition, it warned that industry was risking a political backlash that jeopardized its continued expansion if drillers did not improve their practices. Many of the panel's recommendations were included in budget documents yesterday as focus areas for the multi-agency study.

Reporter Phil Taylor contributed.

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