Wednesday, 30 January 2013 07:35
January 30, 2013
As much as the U.S. economy has enjoyed the benefits of the recent boom oil and gas exploration, plenty of questions have been raised about the engineering resources being used to tap into these new deposits.
Environmental activists have been fighting the spreading use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, insisting that the process could cause water contamination, a claim the energy industry has vehemently denied.
Now there might finally be a real test of the real consequences of fracking, as Dow Jones Newswires reports, Chesapeake Energy Corp. has agreed to let the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency thoroughly test the safety of its drilling practices.
Studying the boom
The EPA is already in the midst of a major study on the environmental ramifications of fracking.
The report was ordered by Congress and intended to be a definitive statement on the prospects for the new approach to drilling. Scheduled for final publication late next year, the agency has alreadyÂ released a 275-page report on the research so far.
Surprisingly enough, according to The Wall Street Journal, the EPA has so far managed to win some modest praise from both environmentalists and the energy industry, including intensive research alongside numerous simulations about the possibility for water contamination.
Not everyone agreed, however, as environmental group Earthworks pointed to the lack of on-site water testing as a fatal flaw in the study.
"Computer simulations are not enough," Alan Septoff, a spokesman for Earthworks, said.
First for fracking
Given the importance some advocates have put on gathering data firsthand, the decision by Chesapeake to participate in the EPA study could go a long way to legitimize the reports results.
"The value of these tests is that they are really the first independent review of what's happening from start to finish. It is a data set that doesn't really exist right now," Briana Mordick, a scientist for the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council, told the Newswires.
To collect this crucial data, researchers from the EPA will visit sites scheduled for drilling in advance and run a variety of tests on the water in the area, establishing baseline levels for a variety of chemicals. Many energy companies already go through much the same process, but primarily only to protect themselves in the case of legal action later.
Later on, once the wells have been drilled, the researchers will come back and test water in the area again, keeping a careful tab on any changes and in particular looking for the presence of certain toxic chemicals.
As it stands, Chesapeake is the only company to agree to the EPA study, but as the second-largest gas producer in the country that should already provide a reasonable test. However, another major player in shale gas, Range Resources, is also hoping to take part, with the two sides only working out liability for the researchers while on site.
Skepticism and frustration
Despite some optimism about the prospects of this new study, some experts questions whether the results will ultimately prove representative.
"If a company knows they're being followed closely, they're going to be very, very careful," said Glenn Miller, a professor of environmental science at the University of Nevada Reno.
At the same, some environmental advocates are angered that the EPA chose to pursue a partnership with Range Resources rather than continue litigating a case in Texas where the company was accused of contaminating water wells in an area west of Fort Worth, according to The Associated Press. In particular, many cried foul after the agency set aside a report strongly linking the contamination with the company's gas wells.
Still, while there have been a number of incidents that have been blamed on fracking, the broader risks for the new technology remain highly unclear - something this new report could help resolve.
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