The public and the energy industry got their first glimpse Friday of a long-awaited study on the possible correlation between water pollution and fracking, but Obama administration officials said the full results and definitive findings of their study won't be released until 2014.
The review could have major implications for the U.S. natural gas boom spurred by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which has transformed the U.S. energy market and could revamp global energy flows.
The Environmental Protection Agency offered a "progress report" on its broad, multifaceted report, which includes data gathered from hundreds of natural gas and oil wells across the U.S. The study is the federal government's most ambitious look at fracking, which uses water, sand and chemical mixtures to crack underground rock and release previously inaccessible reserves of natural gas and other fuels.
The fracking boom has transformed local economies in Pennsylvania, North Dakota and elsewhere, while also putting the nation on track to become energy-independent.
But critics of the practice continue to claim fracking is unsafe and endangers local water supplies, and environmental groups have put increasing pressure on President Obama and governors such as New York's Andrew Cuomo to crack down on fracking and instead embrace renewable fuels.
The EPA study could become the key cornerstone of future federal efforts to limit fracking, and many congressional Republicans and oil and gas industry leaders remain leery of the science behind it.
In its progress report, the EPA explains how it is examining five major areas of the fracking "water cycle." They are: The impact of large water withdrawals, necessary to perform fracking; the possible impacts of fracking fluid surface spills and how they would affect drinking water resources; the implications of "injection and fracturing process" on drinking water resources; how "flowback" — wastewater generated by fracking — could affect water supplies; and the possible effects of inadequate treatment of fracking wastewater.
The EPA is conducting case studies at well sites in Colorado, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Texas. So far, the agency has collected samples from 70 domestic water wells, 15 monitoring wells and 13 surface water sources. It is also looking at "information on chemicals and practices" from a number of oil and gas companies, and is evaluating "well construction and fracturing records" provided by operators for 333 oil and gas wells across the U.S.
The study, the agency said, will undergo rigorous and independent peer review before being completed.
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