Report: EPA struggling to keep pace with ‘fracking’ boom

10 10, 2012 by The Hill

Congressional auditors conclude in new reports that the Environmental Protection Agency faces big hurdles overseeing a U.S. oil-and-gas drilling boom that’s creating “unknown” long-term health risks.

One of two Government Accountability Office reports made public Tuesday lays out “challenges” facing regulators amid the growth of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” the development method that’s enabling major oil and natural-gas production increases.

“Officials at EPA reported that conducting inspection and enforcement activities for oil and gas development from unconventional reservoirs is challenging due to limited information, as well as the dispersed nature of the industry and the rapid pace of development,” the report states.

Problems facing EPA include a frequent lack of “baseline” water-quality data that makes it hard to gauge alleged groundwater contamination, and overall difficulty tracking the development boom, the report states.

For instance, the report notes that it’s tough to inspect the large number of new well sites in Ohio, where the Utica shale play is attracting development, because EPA “generally does not receive information about new wells or their location.”

The report also describes limits on EPA’s legal authorities, as well as challenges facing other federal and state regulators.

“For example, EPA officials in headquarters and Regional offices told us that the exclusion of exploration and production waste from hazardous waste regulations under [the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act] significantly limits EPA’s role in regulating these wastes,” the report states.

Environmentalists and a number of Capitol Hill Democrats say that federal regulators need a stronger hand when overseeing the industry.

But repeated bills to boost regulation, including measures to end fracking’s exemption from certain Safe Drinking Water Act requirements, have not advanced.

A second report details potential public health and environmental impacts of oil-and-gas development.

“Oil and gas development, whether conventional or shale oil and gas, pose inherent environmental and public health risks, but the extent of these risks associated with shale oil and gas development is unknown, in part, because the studies GAO reviewed do not generally take into account the potential long-term, cumulative effects,” the report states.

Fracking involves high-pressure injections of water, sand and chemicals into rock formations to open up seams that enable trapped hydrocarbons to flow. The method, combined with advances in horizontal drilling, is helping to substantially boost U.S. production.

The reports, citing U.S. Energy Information Administration data, note that oil production from shale formations grew from about 39 million barrels in 2007 to about 217 million barrels in 2011.

On the natural-gas side, during the same five-year stretch, shale gas grew from 6 percent of U.S. supply to roughly 25 percent, and is slated to account for about half of the nation’s gas by 2035.

The reports are available here and here.