This map, released today by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, provides one of the best views yet of how hydraulic fracturing for natural gas and oil has spread across the United States. It is a snapshot in time, based on 24,879 wells that were “fracked,” or hydraulically fractured, between September 2009 and October 2010.
(Related Special Report: “The Great Shale Gas Rush“)
The locations were mapped based on information the EPA received from nine industry service companies, as part of the agency’s long-running study into the potential impact on drinking water from fracking operations.
The EPA today released a 278-page progress report (pdf) on that study, including the map above. But the agency did not yet draw any final conclusions on the drinking water risks in today’s report. The agency now says that process will take at least another year, with a draft report expected to be released in 2014 for public and peer review.
Instead, the agency detailed 18 different research projects it now has underway to look at water impacts in five separate stages of the fracking process: how the industry acquires the water, chemical mixing at the site of a well, the injection of fracking fluid into the well, the flowback of frack fluid after the well is drilled, and wastewater treatment and disposal. (See interactive: “Breaking Fuel From Rock“)
High-volume hydraulic fracturing has been combined with horizontal drilling over the past decade to force oil and natural gas out of shale and other tight geological formations by fracturing the rock with high-pressure injection of water, sand, and chemicals. The EPA said estimates at the volume required ranges from 65,000 gallons for shallow coalbed methane production, up to 13 million gallons for deep shale gas production. The agency noted that 5 million gallons of water is equivalent to the water used by approximately 50,000 people for one day.
Many of fracking’s opponents and proponents had hoped for more definitive conclusions by now from the EPA, which began the research last year after preliminary investigations in 2010. Glenn Paulson, the EPA’s science advisor, earlier this fall called the study of fracking and drinking water “one of the most aggressive public outreach programs in EPA history.” He said the progress report will show the “range and depth” of what EPA is looking at. Geographically, at least, that range can be seen in the map above, which shows that fracking has been underway in every region of the United States.
The progress report indicates that the EPA’s drinking water study will focus only on potential avenues of contamination of drinking water from surface spills and underground injection. It will not look at several other issues that have raised concerns–for example, the risk of small earthquakes from underground injection disposal of wastewater. (Related: “Tracing Links Between Earthquakes and Fracking“) The agency said it also will not be studying how fracking fluid might cause geochemical reactions in the subsurface, changing the fate and transport of substances in the subsurface; EPA said that matter is already being studied by the U.S. Department of Energy and other academic institutions. But the agency will be looking at issues like elevated methane levels or other contamination of drinking water. (Related: “Good Gas, Bad Gas“)
As it has in the past, the EPA opened its report with an affirmation of the importance of the energy development: “Natural gas plays a key role in our nation’s clean energy future,” it said.”…However, as the use of hydraulic fracturing has increased, so have concerns about its potential human health and environmental impacts, especially for drinking water.”