University of Texas at Austin Researchers to Conduct Comprehensive Study of Hydraulic Fracturing of Shale Gas

A research team at The University of Texas at Austin will conduct a comprehensive review of the science, policy and environmental issues surrounding hydraulic fracturing of shale gas, it was announced today.

The project will for the first time combine an independent assessment of alleged groundwater contamination and seismic events ascribed to ‘fracing’ of shale formations with a detailed analysis of the scope and effectiveness of laws and regulations related to hydraulic fracturing.

The goal of the study is to promote a fact-based approach to regulatory policies for shale gas development.

“What we’re trying to do is separate fact from fiction,” said Dr. Raymond L. Orbach, director of the Energy Institute, which is providing funding for the study. “Unlocking huge reserves of natural gas could be vital our nation’s energy security. If proven to be safe and environmentally benign, fracing could unleash a bountiful supply of domestic energy for generations, if not centuries, to come.”

Hydraulic fracturing, which has been in use for decades, has come under intense scrutiny recently from environmental organizations, community groups and politicians who fear it poses health risks from groundwater contamination. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is initiating a study of fracing, and is expected to issue new regulations on the practice sometime next year.

To date, oil and gas regulators and other experts in groundwater protection have found little evidence of a direct link between fracing and groundwater contamination, but no comprehensive study of the technology and its effects has been conducted.

Geology Professor Chip Groat, an associate director at the Energy Institute, will lead a multidisciplinary team of researchers for the new study, including experts from the university’s Bureau of Economic Geology, Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, School of Law, Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy, and College of Communication.

The study will encompass three key areas:

Independent Assessment of Environmental Issues

The research team will investigate specific claims of groundwater contamination, seismic events, fugitive air emissions and other concerns associated with fracing in states within the Barnett, Marcellus and Haynesville Shales. Their work will include a systematic evaluation of data from scientific studies, news reports, advocacy Web sites, citizens groups and other sources.

Researchers also will examine influences on current and proposed national policies relating to shale gas development and compare reported concerns of fracing with peer-reviewed literature of recognized effects from the practice.

“Our focus will be on evaluating evidence that verifies or refutes claims of environmental damage from fracing, as well as identifying actual causes of problems,” Groat said.

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has been involved in the design of the study and will provide comments to researchers before a final report is made public, he said. A peer group representing scientists from cooperating universities in the affected areas also will review the team’s findings.

Regulatory Review and Analysis

The research team will conduct the first comprehensive review of regulations relevant to fracing in place today. The work will identify and describe policies in shale gas states to understand the scope of protective measures and determine whether regulations accurately reflect the science of fracing and its potential effects. Claims of environmental damage and their geographic, topical and temporal distribution will be mapped and analyzed to identify patterns in assessing their effects on public policy.

“One thing we’re trying to do is determine the relevance of existing policy, as well as changes that have recently been proposed,” Groat said. “At present, there’s no full regulatory picture of fracing. We’re trying to fill in the gaps and predict the likely trajectory of future policy.”

Communication of Key Findings and Recommendations

In preparation of its final report, researchers will review scientific studies and articles, popular media and other sources to assess the state of scientific information related to fracing. The team also will interview local residents and other stakeholders to identify concerns and overall perceptions of shale gas development, with a focus on fracing and water contamination.

Groat said the team’s final report will include a series of recommendations for the development of a fact-based approach to regulations governing fracing. Representatives from universities and the EDF will review and comment on the recommendations prior to publication of a final report.

“Some well-publicized incidents have created considerable concern about the use of fracing,” Groat said. “Our goal is to inject more science into the debate, so that policymakers have a sound foundation upon which to develop appropriate rules and regulations.”

Learn more about the Energy Institute.

For more information, contact: Gary Rasp, Energy Institute, 512-585-2084.