Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Water and Wildlife Subcommittee has requested the General Accountability Office (GAO) initiate a study on several issues related to hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” for natural gas and its potential impacts on drinking water and the waters of the United States.
“American families have a right to clean and safe drinking water, and we must understand the potential damage to the health of those living near such drilling operations and environmental contamination that could affect future generations,” said Senator Cardin. “New reports raise fundamental questions about exploration and development of natural gas from shale formations. If these concerns are verified, they may result in a dramatic increase in the number of wells to be drilled and the number of times each well will have to undergo the hydraulic fracturing process.”
Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is a method in which fluids containing often potentially toxic chemicals are injected at high pressure into underground rock formations to release natural gas. Much of the water used in the process flows back up the drilling hole, often containing naturally occurring radioactive substances and high saline levels that municipal wastewater treatment plants are ill-equipped to handle.
Senator Cardin chaired a hearing on April 12, 2011, in which witnesses testified about the potential impacts of fracking on drinking water supplies and surface waters of the United States. The hearing revealed a number of cases of lax enforcement of existing regulations and concerns about disposing of the fracking fluids. As Senator Cardin said at the hearing, “I am a supporter of natural gas, but it must be done in an environmentally responsible fashion.”
Senator Cardin is also an original cosponsor of the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act, S.587, which would end the natural gas industry’s exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act and require the industry to disclose the chemicals used in the fracking process.
Additionally, while the natural gas industry is seeking to expand Marcellus Shale drilling into New York and Maryland, state regulators are delaying any permits until human health and environmental impacts are better understood.
The details of the request sent to Gene Dodaro, Comptroller General of GAO, follows:
Proposed Topics for GAO Study of Affects of Hydraulic Fracturing on Water Resources of United States
Context: On April 12, 2011, the Water and Wildlife Subcommittee conducted a hearing entitled “Natural Gas Drilling: Public Health and Environment Impacts.” The hearing raised important issues concerning the impact of hydraulic fracturing on water resources in the United States. In addition to these basic concerns, recent press accounts raise new questions about the abundance and profitability of natural gas resources from shale “plays.” Potential miscalculations of available reserves could result in larger environmental impacts than originally estimated. Based on issues raised in the hearing and more recent developments, this proposed study is intended to clarify the legal framework surrounding hydraulic fracturing, assess claims of potential miscalculations of gas reserves, and examine how such miscalculations could contribute to adverse impacts on United States’ water resources.
I. How might hydraulic fracturing adversely impact water resources?
1. In addition to the effects on drinking water resources, what is known about the environmental impacts and risks of hydraulic fracturing activities on waters covered under the Federal Water Pollution Control Act?
2. What is known about how these environmental impacts and risks compare with other energy sources such as coal and oil?
a. Does it present unique potential for groundwater contamination?
b. Does it present unique waste water management and disposal issues?
c. Does it use larger quantities of water than other energy sources?
3. What options exist to mitigate these environmental impacts and risks and to what extent are they being implemented?
4. What is known about the safety and environmental risks associated with the increased use of fracking near old, abandoned, or active wells or tunnels?
a. What is the extent to which fracking could damage or disturb these wells or tunnels, resulting in methane seepage and/or the uncontrolled release of oil and gas?
b. Could such an occurrence result in ground water contamination?
II. How much natural gas is available for hydraulic fracturing?
1. Technological advance:
a. How has domestic natural gas production changed over the years as a result of the increased use of hydraulic fracturing technology to extract natural gas from subsurface shale formations?
2. Calculating reserves and impacts of inaccuracy:
a. Have the methods used to calculate reserves changed in the last 10 years?
i. Are wells that are being used to estimate the amount of recoverable natural gas in a play representative of actual production levels?
ii. Is there any evidence of using non-representative wells for modeling the reserves of a play?
iii. How might the use of unrepresentative wells influence estimates of cumulative impacts of drilling in a particular region?
b. Are methodologies for calculating the productivity rate of a particular well consistent with reality?
i. Are calculations of well productivity over time consistent with actual production levels?
ii. Is there any evidence that productivity curves are inaccurate?
iii. How might overestimations of well productivity rate overtime influence estimates of cumulative impacts of drilling in a particular region?
c. How might present concerns over inaccuracy of shale productivity estimates affect the future of fracking?
d. How might overestimation of recoverable reserves affect the number of wells fracked and the number of times a particular well is fracked?
i. How would this affect cumulative adverse environmental impacts associated hydraulic fracturing?
ii. Would this result in more water use and waste water production?
III. What are the procedural requirements for hydraulic fracturing?
1. Laws and regulations governing estimating reserves:
a. What requirements and procedures govern the manner in which shale reserves are estimated?
b. How have recent changes in SEC requirements for estimating reserves impacted procedures used?
2. Environmental laws and regulations governing hydraulic fracturing:
i. What federal and state environmental requirements govern the use of hydraulic fracturing to develop oil and gas wells?
(a) What requirements and procedures govern the extraction process using hydraulic fracturing technology?
(b) What requirements and procedures are in place to address risks posed by fluids that do not come back to the surface?
ii. What actions have federal agencies taken to ensure that operators are following these requirements? What courses of action (or areas of jurisdiction) are available to federal agencies that have not been employed?
(a) To what extent do federal agencies track the number of abandoned or active wells that are located near wells that are using hydraulic fracturing?
(b) How, if at all, are permanently abandoned wells on federal lands monitored and to what extent do the technological and resource capabilities exist to monitor the effect of hydraulic fracturing on these wells? Are abandoned wells on non-federal lands monitored in any systematic fashion?
(c) Have any state or federal agencies assessed how many wells will have to be drilled to produce target levels of natural gas? In other words, have any state or federal agencies done a thorough analysis (that takes into account actual decline curves and price impacts) of the number of wells and number of rounds of fracking that have to occur to reach a certain target amount of gas?
iii. What environmental or health problems have been reported to EPA and states related to hydraulic fracturing practices and how have EPA and the states responded to these reported problems?
iv. How do stakeholders view the effectiveness of industry’s STRONGER activities related to states’ regulation and management of hydraulic fracturing and its potential environmental effects and risks?
v. What regulatory measures have been taken at the state level? In light of well performance concerned, have states passed any measures to limit well density, regulate offsets, control pipeline placement, etc?
3. Laws and regulations governing waste water disposal:
a. What requirements and procedures govern the disposal of resulting waste fluid?
4. Laws and regulations governing water contamination?
a. What requirements and procedures govern prevention and cleanup of water contamination at sites using fracking?
IV. What has been happening on the ground?
1. To what extent has industry employed best management practices?
2. How do standard business practices compare to best management practices?
3. What lessons have been learned from the use of hydraulic fracturing on public lands, including the reuse of hydraulic fracturing water, disclosure of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, and proper well construction to produce natural gas?
V. How does uncertainty surrounding hydraulic fracturing affect the waters of the United States?
1. How does uncertainty surrounding availability of reserves discussed in Section II and regulation controlling claiming reserves discussed in Section III affect the potential impact of hydraulic fracturing on water resources?
2. How have technological advances discussed in Section II increased or reduced potential adverse impact of hydraulic fracturing on water resources?
3. How does the legal framework governing hydraulic fracturing discussed in Section III affect the potential impact of hydraulic fracturing on water resources?
a. Do exemptions from major environmental regulation increase potential adverse impacts?
b. Would increased agency action reduce potential adverse impacts?
4. If there is a gap observed in Section IV between best management practices and standard business practices, how could this gap potential impact of hydraulic fracturing on water resources?