Back to the Future with EPA and Hydraulic Fracturing

Agency convenes hearing in Canonsburg tomorrow to discuss scope of upcoming hydraulic fracturing study. But has EPA forgotten about its 2004 report?

Tomorrow night in Canonsburg, the EPA will convene its third public hearing on its upcoming study on hydraulic fracturing, a key technology that’s been used to produce energy in Pennsylvania for more than a half-century, but one that’s become especially important lately as efforts to convert the enormous potential of the Marcellus into jobs and revenues for Pennsylvanians move forward across the Commonwealth.

But for those keeping tally at home, this new study by EPA isn’t the first time the agency has looked into the safety and performance of fracturing technology. In a report released by EPA in June 2004, federal officials found the fracturing of coalbed methane formations “poses little or no threat” to underground sources of drinking water – despite that fact that coal seams generally reside close to formations carrying drinking water underground. In remarks set to be delivered at tomorrow’s hearing, MSC president and executive director Kathryn Klaber lays out some additional details (and context) associated with this landmark study:

In that report — the product of an intensive, four-year course of study first initiated under the Clinton administration — EPA found “no evidence” suggesting the fracturing of shallow coalbed methane reserves posed a threat to underground drinking water supplies. Certainly you’re aware that coalbed methane strata reside thousands of feet closer to the water table than shale formations, and that the technology used today to access clean-burning natural gas from these formations is much more advanced and sophisticated than what was available in the past.

For their part, natural gas critics contend that EPA’s 2004 study on fracturing’s application to coalbed methane reserves somehow isn’t relevant to the current conversation about the Marcellus Shale. Come again? If the fracturing of shallow coalbeds near the water table was found to be safe by EPA, how is it that the fracturing of deep shale formations is any less so? After all, we’re talking about shale strata that reside thousands and thousands of feet below both the water table and the coal beds themselves.

Thursday’s forum in Canonsburg is expected to address some of these questions, and more generally lay out the direction that EPA will take in engaging in its second study on hydraulic fracturing in 70 months. And you know what? It’s an effort we support in full. With fracturing, we’re talking about a technology that’s been deployed more than 1.1 million times in the 60-plus years in which it’s been in commercial use. And in all that time, not a single government regulator – including the EPA – has made a single claim suggesting it’s a threat to groundwater. Assuming this new study is science-based and peer-reviewed, there’s no reason to believe its findings will diverge from what the agency has consistently found in the past.

So what will the latest installment of EPA’s hydraulic fracturing study series look like when it hits the shelves sometime in the next two or three years? Tough to say for sure, but if it ends up drawing on the testimony of regulators in the states, experts in the field, and everyday Americans whose lives are being made better and more prosperous thanks to the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of shale gas in America – it should be quite a page-turner indeed.

In the meantime, folks interested in coming out to tell EPA what they think of responsible shale gas development in Pennsylvania have a few outstanding tasks to complete before they arrive tomorrow night. First order of business: Register for the meeting, which is easily accomplished by navigating to this page. Second: Make sure to stock up on all the facts. MSC fact sheets have been developed on a range of topics likely to be addressed in some form – from the full disclosure of materials involved in the fracturing process, to the many ways in which natural gas can be used as a workhorse in PA to deliver a clean, secure and affordable energy future. The full arsenal can be accessed here.

So that should just about do it. Pre-registration for the event starts at 5:00 p.m. sharp, and the address for the Hilton Garden Inn is 1000 Corporate Drive in Canonsburg. Hope to see you out there.