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Regulations start to catch up as fracking flourishes

By By DIANNA WRAY - dwray@vicad.com
Dec. 17, 2011 at 6:17 a.m.
Updated Dec. 20, 2011 at 6:20 a.m.


WHAT IS FRACKING?

Hydraulic fracturing is not a new technology. It has been used to get slowing wells flowing again since the 1940s.

However, the process has advanced in leaps and bounds through the years.

Once a well has been drilled, millions of gallons of water blended with chemicals and sand is pumped into the formation, causing it to crack open and letting the oil and gas trapped in the shale rock to come bubbling up through the pipes.

Once they have drilled their way into the formation, the dense shale rock is dynamited and shattered. A gelatinous mix of water, sand and chemicals is forced down the pipes and it holds the formation open, setting the oil and natural gas locked inside it loose. The process takes between 4 to 5 million gallons of water, and in the Eagle Ford Shale, most of that water doesn't come back up. Whatever water does is usually put back into the ground in injection wells or stored in holding ponds.

Regulatory agencies in various states and countries are weighing in on hyrdraulic fracturing more than ever before.

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency released a draft of its study on fracking. The federal agency found that fracking might have caused the contamination of water wells in the community of Pavillion, Wyo.

This is a long way from where the EPA left the issue when it released a study in 2004 that declared fracking was not likely to contaminate any water supplies.

The 2004 study prompted Congress to exempt fracking from EPA jurisdiction through the Safe Water Drinking Act in 2005. However, the explosion of shale plays because of fracking and horizontal drilling has prompted a growing number of complaints about water well contamination. In response, the EPA is increasing its studies and federal oversight.

Hydraulic fracturing fluids were taken out of the EPA's jurisdiction when Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005, amending the Safe Drinking Water Act to exclude water-based fracking fluids. The EPA has undertaken a new study at the request of Congress, with the final report due in 2014. Even as the EPA is coming back on the scene, the states have been stepping up to regulate fracking.

Texas was the first to pass a law forcing disclosure of the chemicals used in wells. The Texas Railroad Commission is overseeing this regulation. On Wednesday, the state agency finalized the disclosure requirements. The new rules are set to go into effect in February.

Elsewhere, several states and even countries are wading into the issue:

On Tuesday, Colorado regulators approved rules requiring energy companies to disclose the chemicals used in fracking. The rules are similar to those in Texas.

The New York legislature is in the process of drafting its own regulations for hydraulic fracturing. The state has refused to issue drilling permits for the Marcellus Shale since 2008. New York started writing guidelines for hydraulic fracturing, and the guidelines are now 1,537 pages, according to an AP report on the hearings.

Wyoming has the strongest laws in place, according to ProPublica. That state's rules require states to disclose all chemicals used in the process, except for those that are proprietary which have to be submitted to regulators (and are kept confidential.)

In August, New Jersey placed a one-year moratorium on fracking, citing the need for further study of the technology. However, the state doesn't have any of this type of drilling going on. Gov. Chris Christie changed it to a one-year moratorium instead of an outright ban after vetoing the actual ban.

France also banned fracking in June of this year, becoming the first country to enact a ban.

"Development of hydrocarbon resources underground is strategic for our country but not at any price," French President Nicolas Sarkozy told Bloomberg News during a visit to Ales in southern France. "This won't be done until it has been shown that technologies used for development respect the environment, the complex nature of soil and water networks."

Corrected Dec. 20, 2011: The Texas Railroad Commission is in charge of chemical disclosure rules for hydraulic fracturing. The wrong agency was used as a source in a story on Page H5 on Sunday and in an editorial on Page B3 on Tuesday.

To read the main story in this installment of "The Play" special series,click here.

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