The Obama administration has pulled back the curtain on its long-awaited study of the possible correlation between water pollution and fracking, but the full results and definitive findings of its far-reaching report won't be released until 2014.
The review, the most sweeping federal survey to date, likely will have major implications for the country's natural gas and oil boom spurred by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which has transformed the U.S. fuel market and is reshaping the global energy landscape.
The Environmental Protection Agency offered a "progress report" on its broad, multifaceted study, which includes data gathered from hundreds of natural gas and oil wells across the U.S.
The agency in 2010 was charged by Congress to examine fracking, which uses water, sand and chemical mixtures to crack underground rock and release previously inaccessible reserves of natural gas and other fuels.
The boom from fracking has transformed local economies in Pennsylvania, North Dakota and elsewhere, and it has put the nation on track to become energy-independent in a stunningly short period of time.
"More jobs are being created. Imports are down. And more revenue is being sent to government. Continuation of this trend is vital to America's economic recovery and long-term prosperity," said Rayola Dougher, senior economic adviser with the American Petroleum Institute. "However, the right government policies will be important to facilitating this."
The ongoing EPA study is set to become the cornerstone of future federal fracking policies, yet many congressional Republicans and oil and gas industry leaders remain leery of the science behind the government's probe.
The White House and several governors have come under increasing pressure from environmental groups to ban or greatly limit the practice, and some fear the EPA report will become justification for those steps.
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 also is looking at "information on chemicals and practices" from a number of oil and gas companies, and it 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.
In the meantime, oil and gas industry leaders must confront the swelling tide of negative publicity surrounding fracking. The practice has drawn the attention of many musicians, movie stars and other celebrities who want to see it banned entirely.
Fracking is "toxic and stupid" and "it has to be stopped," actress and activist Mariel Hemingway, said at an October rally in Colorado, which is engaged in a heated debate over the future of fracking in the state "All of us are a community that needs to make a stand."
It also is the subject of a new film, "Promised Land," which depicts the process in a highly negative light.
That attention, combined with the potential that the EPA will indict fracking in its final report, require a strong response from the oil and gas sector.
"I think we've got a major education project to do," Tim Wigley, president of the Western Energy Alliance, told the Washington Times.
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