EPA Considers Health, Safety Data for Fracturing Fluids

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said in December 2011 that it is developing a regulation that would require manufacturers ...

By Patrick Crow, Washington Correspondent

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said in December 2011 that it is developing a regulation that would require manufacturers to disclose health and safety data for substances used in hydraulic fracturing fluids.

The agency said the rule was in response to an August 2011 petition from a coalition of 120 environmental and public health organizations led by Earthjustice.

That petition also asked EPA to require toxicity testing to evaluate potential health and environmental impacts of fracturing fluids. However, EPA said the petition did not “set forth sufficient facts” for it to develop such requirements under the Toxic Substances Control Act.

EPA said an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking would be published “identifying key issues for further discussion and analysis” and a timetable for promulgating the rule.

Production of natural gas from shale formations has mushroomed in recent years in the U.S. due to advances in drilling technologies and greater use of hydraulic fracturing.

Fracturing now is widely used in tight sands, coal beds, and deep shales. The process creates small cracks in underground geological formations through the combination of high pressures and chemicals.

Also in December, EPA released a draft report linking fracturing with drinking water source contamination.

The draft report was based on an investigation of groundwater contamination claims from residents in Pavillion, Wyo., and found chemicals, particularly synthetic chemicals, present in ground water supplies indicative of gas production and fracturing activities.

Environmental groups said the report clearly linked fracturing and groundwater pollution. The gas industry said the report’s findings reflect predictable results from monitoring in an area with extensive natural gas production.

Dusty Horwitt, a public lands analyst with the Environmental Working Group, said, “This finding feels like a case of déjà vu. Almost a quarter century ago, EPA concluded that hydraulic fracturing can contaminate groundwater. The new finding points to the need for broader testing to determine how fracturing endangers groundwater and what steps can be taken to prevent toxic pollution by gas drilling.”

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the senior Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said, “EPA’s conclusions are not based on sound science but rather on political science. Its findings are premature, given that the agency has not gone through the necessary peer-review process, and there are still serious outstanding questions regarding EPA’s data and methodology.”

He said, “As recently as November 9, 2011, EPA Regional Administrator James Martin said that the results of the latest round of testing in Pavillion were not significantly different from the first two rounds of testing, which showed no link between hydraulic fracturing and contamination. Yet only a few weeks later, EPA has decided the opposite. EPA is clearly not prepared to be making conclusions.”

Inhofe has asked EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to release all the data, methodologies and protocols used in the draft report.

Encana Oil & Gas Inc. strongly disagreed with the conclusions in the draft report. It said, “The EPA’s data from existing domestic water wells aligns with all previous testing done by Encana in the area and shows no impacts from oil and gas development.

“Of most concern, many of the EPA’s findings from its recent deep monitoring wells, including those related to any potential connection between hydraulic fracturing and Pavillion groundwater quality, are conjecture, not factual and only serve to trigger undue alarm.”

Cooling Systems Report

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) has reported that more than half of the cooling systems at U.S. electric power plants reuse water resources. The plants use about half of the water withdrawn daily in the nation.

In March 2011, EPA issued proposed standards for cooling systems that favor closed-cycle systems, while allowing regulators to consider both the costs and benefits of cooling system design in their application at each facility covered by the standards.

Thermoelectric power plants use three major kinds of cooling systems to cool down (condense) steam after it has been used to turn a steam turbine and generate power: closed-cycle water cooling, once-through water cooling, and dry-air cooling.

EIA said 53% of the electric generating capacity in the U.S. uses closed-cycle cooling systems. Most new power plants, like many combined-cycle natural gas plants, use closed-cycle cooling systems; many older natural gas- and coal-fired power plants use once-through cooling. As a result, the average age of a closed-cycle cooling system is 29 years, compared to 50 years for once-through systems. Once-through systems are more prevalent in eastern states, and closed-cycle systems are more common in western states.

Section 316(b) of the Clean Water Act requires facilities with cooling water intake structures to use the best technology available to mitigate the environmental impacts of the systems to aquatic wildlife.

EPA issued proposed standards on March 28, 2011. The proposed rule delegates implementation to state environmental regulators and allows them to consider both the costs and benefits of cooling system design at each facility, and is not expected to require the use of closed-cycle cooling at all plants.

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