CLEVELAND: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is analyzing the threat that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, poses to drinking water, but that study won’t be completed until 2016.
That assessment came Tuesday from Jeanne Briskin, coordinator of hydraulic fracturing research at the EPA’s Office of Research and Development.
She was among the speakers at “Shale Gas: Promises and Challenges,” a two-day conference staged by the National Academy of Engineering, held in Severance Hall, the home of the Cleveland Orchestra.
Case Western Reserve, Cleveland State and Kent State universities sponsored the conference, which attracted 850 people Tuesday.
Briskin said the EPA probably would complete and release a preliminary report in late 2014. It is “complex research,” she said.
In 2010, Congress directed the agency to investigate the threat to groundwater and air from hydraulic fracturing in Ohio and other states.
Briskin outlined what her agency has done so far and the work that still must be completed. It is sampling water in two drilling counties in Pennsylvania plus in Colorado, North Dakota and Texas.
Nine energy companies and nine drilling-supply companies have cooperated with the EPA research, and 1,000 chemicals have been identified as being used in the fracking process, Briskin said.
Stanford University professor Mark Zoback expressed concern over injection wells that are used in Ohio and other states for disposal of liquid drilling wastes.
He said drillers are injecting “too much water too fast,” and that’s increasing underground pressure that can, in some cases, trigger small earthquakes, like those that hit Youngstown in late 2011.
It is probable that problem injection wells increasingly will be shut down to avoid future earthquake problems, he said. Drillers will have to avoid injecting near faults, limit injection rates or limit pressures to minimize problems.
He said the fracking process is little understood, calling it “a very complex phenomena.”
Zoback said the use of water, sand and toxic chemicals might cause “micro-mini earthquakes” that free up the natural gas thousands of feet below ground. He predicted that drillers will be able to extract twice the gas they’re getting now while using half as much water in the fracking as drilling technologies improve.
The biggest problem that energy companies face: “It’s well construction, well construction, well construction. Do it properly,” Zoback said.
Drilling is a process that absolutely can be done safely, but it is not always done that way, he said.
Utilities like Akron’s FirstEnergy Corp. are very interested in shale gas as a fuel, but price volatility is a concern, said Gary R. Leidich, a retired president of FirstEnergy Generation Corp.
The conference was organized in part because of Ohio’s role in the Utica shale boom, said Hunter Peckham, conference chair from Case Western Reserve.
The program was designed to address what he called the “legitimate concerns” surrounding shale gas drilling, he said,
The conference continues today.
Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or email@example.com.