As part of a broad investigation into the practice of pressurized injection of water, sand, and chemicals to extract natural gas from shale, known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held several public hearings this week in Binghamton, New York. Hydraulic fracturing operates by the pressure of the injected materials exceeding the rock strength and the fluid then opening or enlarging fractures in the rock. As the formation is fractured, a “propping agent,” such as sand or ceramic beads, is pumped into the fractures to keep them from closing as the pumping pressure is released.
The investigation focuses on how fracking may impact drinking water supplies. EPA’s findings could affect Congress’ decision whether to repeal an exemption that shields hydraulic fracturing from federal regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The existing exemption followed a more limited study conducted by EPA in 2004 and is contained in the Energy Policy Act of 2005.
Issues include infiltration of drinking water supplies with the fracking chemicals, many of which have not been identified by the drillers, as well as treatment and disposal of the wastewater produced. With prospects for federal climate change and carbon pricing legislation dimming and state and regional cap and trade programs vying to fill the regulatory void, the focus may increasingly shift to expanding production of lower greenhouse gas emitting energy sources, such as natural gas. By some estimates technological innovations in exploration and production, such as fracking, have resulted in an almost 40 percent increase in the size of U.S. natural gas reserves since 2006.