EPA to begin 'fracking' study

GRAND FORKS -- Federal authorities plan to continue taking a hard look at the oil industry practice of hydraulic fracturing, a technology that is key to North Dakota's booming oil development.

GRAND FORKS -- Federal authorities plan to continue taking a hard look at the oil industry practice of hydraulic fracturing, a technology that is key to North Dakota's booming oil development.

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a study of all aspects of fracking, including potential impacts on drinking water.

The EPA said it would use case studies to follow the drilling and fracking of a few wells from start to finish. The agency also proposes to look at "three to five places where drilling has reportedly contaminated water," including one site in the Bakken oil shale formation in North Dakota.

At the site near Killdeer in Dunn County, an undated well failure during hydraulic fracturing led to "suspected drinking water aquifer contamination," and effects on soil and surface water when more than 2,000 barrels of oil and fracturing fluids leaked from the well.

The EPA proposes to work with the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources and the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation to determine why the well failed and the extent of the contamination.


According to a draft plan released Tuesday, the study also would examine the implications of the industry's substantial and growing use of water, which the EPA estimates now at 70 billion to 140 billion gallons annually. Those are the equivalents of the water used by one or two cities of 2.5 million people, according to the agency.

The draft plan has been submitted to the EPA's scientific advisory board, which will review it -- and receive public comments -- next month. The study would begin soon after the agency considers reactions to the plan, with a full report to be completed in 2014.

Better drilling

Fracking is the process of creating fractures in shale rock formations through the high-pressure injection of fluids deep underground, allowing more oil and gas to flow out of the formation.

Engineers have used the process to increase well production for more than 60 years, but it has become especially effective recently in combination with horizontal drilling and other technological developments. It has made drilling more profitable in many areas, including the Bakken field in western North Dakota, where drilling and oil and gas production continue to set records.

The EPA noted that 603 rigs were drilling horizontal wells in the country in June 2010, more than double the number of a year before.

Industry officials insist the process is safe. In addition, it helps provide a windfall to land and mineral rights owners who otherwise wouldn't see their properties fully developed.



Environmentalists, however, have challenged oil and gas companies to disclose all chemicals used in fracking, and they have raised questions about its potential impact on water supplies.

The Western Resource Council, an association of environmental organizations based in Billings, Mont., has sparred with the EPA over what the council terms inadequate oversight of oil and gas development. The association's membership includes the Dakota Resource Council in Dickinson.

Fracking has received negative public attention recently, including a Nov. 11 episode of CBS TV's "CSI" crime drama in which hydraulic fracturing played what the industry termed a "misleading" role. A November "60 Minutes" report looked at the reluctance of major oil companies to disclose the chemicals it uses in hydraulic fracturing and a "loophole" in the federal Safe Drinking Water Act that exempts fracking technology from regulation under federal safe drinking water laws.

Fracking is 'vital'

At the North Dakota Legislature on Jan. 20, the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee heard testimony on a bill that would declare fracturing "an acceptable recovery process in this state."

Rep. Duane DeKrey, R-Pettibone, called his bill, HB 1216, a "defensive measure" against potential new EPA regulations. But he said it would not affect state regulation of the process.

State regulators and oil industry representatives were on hand to back the measure. Lynn Helms, director of the Department of Mineral Resources, explained the process and said that any attempt to stop it would be "devastating to our economy."

Todd Kranda, with the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said that development of the Bakken formation in western North Dakota "is only possible through hydraulic fracturing."


Six days later, the full House passed the bill unanimously and sent it to the Senate.

Helms was not available for comment on the EPA study plans, but Ron Ness, president of the Petroleum Council, said the industry gets nervous when the EPA undertakes studies that may broaden beyond the initial narrowly defined subject.

"Our level of concern is very high anytime the EPA is involved," he said.

In his current monthly "Director's Cut" message on the DMR's Oil and Gas Division website, where Helms reports oil production, the numbers of drilling rigs active in the state and developments in the industry, he notes that "the threat of federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing has diminished."

Helms also has disputed a recent Congressional report that said 32 million gallons of diesel fuel had been used in fracking compounds put into wells in the U.S., including 3 million gallons in North Dakota. His research indicates the amount of diesel used in fracking in the state is far less, Helms told the Bismarck Tribune.

Ness said he also shook his head over the diesel report, wondering why the fuss over injecting diesel -- a petroleum product -- into oil wells. He compared it to fretting over "putting the milk back into the cows."


ProPublica, a non-profit corporation which describes itself as an independent news agency producing investigative journalism in the public interest, has been reporting for years on what it calls "rising public concern about the safety of fracking." The agency said this week that the new EPA study "would be the most comprehensive investigation of whether the drilling technique risks polluting drinking water near oil and gas wells across the nation."


The industry group Energy and Depth issued what Pro-Publica called "a lukewarm assessment" of the EPA's study draft.

"Our guys are and will continue to be supportive of a study approach that's based on the science," according to the Energy and Depth statement. "But at first blush, this document doesn't appear to definitively say whether it's an approach EPA will ultimately take."

Haga is a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by

Forum Communications Co.

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