U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has provided an update to its long-term research on the potentially harmful effect that hydraulic fracturing for natural gas has on drinking water, Reuters reported last week. The framework on the study has been issued but conclusions are not expected to be reached before 2014.
The technique, known as fracking, is set to boost U.S. gas production to unprecedented levels but many are concerned that it could also pollute drinking water in the United States.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has offered a progress report based on its extensive study, which includes data collected from hundreds of natural gas and oil wells across the country. The study was commissioned by Congress in 2010 to examine fracking, in which water, sand and chemical mixtures are injected underground to crack rock and release otherwise inaccessible reserves of natural gas and other fuels.
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Even though results will not be published for at least another year, businesses that rely on fracking such as power suppliers, chemical companies and other large-scale consumers of natural gas are concerned that the study might result in more stringent regulation and higher costs. Because of the ample natural gas resources exploited in the United States over the past few years, power companies have been benefiting from low prices, Reuters explains.
However, critics of the fracking technology claim that drilling near homes could pollute the air and water, while environmentalists are worried about the possible link between fracking and earthquakes. Industry representatives and a number of Republican senators have been arguing that conducting such extensive research is not necessary because fracking is a safe technology. Producers claim that they are recycling more and more water that is used in fracking but they are still injecting some of the waste underground.
According to Reuters, the report will look into the scientific methods used to evaluate how drinking water is affected by the lifecycle of water used in fracking. That cycle spans from pumping the water from ground and surface supplies to treating it in wastewater plants. The investigation will also examine the big quantities of water sucked up during the process, the surface spills of fracking fluids on well pads and the drilling process itself.
The report stated that the investigation will look into the environmental effect of spills of the so-called "flowback," which comes up from wells when gas starts to flow, as well as examining the efficient management of wastewater treatment facilities. However, according to Reuters, the research will not investigate the impact of the actual pumping of wastewater underground, an aspect of fracking that environmentalists are concerned could affect future water supplies.
According to Ben Grumbles, a former assistant administrator for water at the EPA and currently president of the U.S. Water Alliance, the fact that this is not included in the report is not a major concern, as another arm of the EPA is doing research on wastewater injection.