A draft coalbed methane fracturing policy statement published in the September 2000 AAPG EXPLORER addressed concerns relating to alleged surface-water and groundwater contamination resulting from coalbed methane production, and raised issues that are of concern to the broader mineral extraction industry.
There are two issues involved:
- Surface-water contamination (Clean Water Act).
- Groundwater contamination (Safe Drinking Water Act).
This Fact Sheet, compiled by the AAPG Division of Environmental Geosciences, addresses groundwater and the Underground Injection Control (UIC) well fracturing concerns under the SDWA.
Division of Environmental Geosciences
Q: What is coalbed methane (CBM)?
A: Methane (CH4), a colorless and odorless hydrocarbon, is typically the most abundant component of natural gas. It is the simplest naturally occurring hydrocarbon and can exist in, and be produced from, coal reservoirs (i.e., coal beds).
Q: What is fracturing?
A: Fracturing - frac or fracture stimulation, frac job, frac or hydraulic fracturing - is a common oil and gas well stimulation practice used to break up and prop open the subsurface rock layers (in this case, coal beds) and stimulate the release of natural gas (or oil) into the well bore.
Q: What is UIC?
A: The Underground Injection Control (UIC) program is delegated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to states under the authority (typically) of the 1980 amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), specifically Section 1425. Under these provisions, states may demonstrate that their program is of equivalent effectiveness to the federal program in protecting underground sources of drinking water.
Some states choose not to maintain their own UIC program, so the federal UIC program rather than a state program is followed. If underground sources of drinking water are potentially jeopardized by shortcomings of the state, or if the state fails to follow the conditions of the primacy agreement, EPA may institute procedures set forth in Section 733 of SDWA to withdraw primacy. This may happen after EPA gives the state a prescribed period of time to correct the shortcoming(s).
Q: How did the concern over the fracturing of coalbed methane wells begin?
A: In 1994, the Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation (LEAF) believed that the state of Alabama should regulate hydraulic fracturing for coalbed methane development as underground injection activity because they alleged a case of drinking water well contamination in Alabama was caused by nearby CBM production.
The case was subsequently investigated, and nearby CBM production was found by both state and federal agencies to not be a source.
EPA denied LEAF's petition based on this technical finding, but LEAF challenged in federal court EPA's belief that hydraulic fracturing could not be regulated under the SDWA because it did not fall under the UIC program's purview. In 1997, LEAF prevailed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit wrote that hydraulic fracturing of coal beds in Alabama should be regulated as an underground injection under the SDWA, eventually requiring Alabama to rewrite their UIC regulations to include hydraulic fracturing for CBM development. EPA approved Alabama's revised UIC program in January 2000.
Q: What is the current issue?
A: Industry groups are concerned that EPA will expand the Alabama decision and require the regulation of hydraulic fracturing in other states. Alabama's Class II UIC program, which was revised by the state and approved by EPA in January 2000, regulates CBM hydraulic fracturing as an injection activity, but not as a Class II well.
According to the Ground Water Protection Council (GWPC), 25 to 30 states use hydraulic fracturing. Alabama, Colorado, Virginia and New Mexico have the greatest number of coalbed methane wells. Industry concern is justified by published statements by EPA that "The study will initially evaluate hydraulic fracturing of coal beds, however, EPA will also consider experiences with hydraulic fracturing associated with other types of production. EPA may later study a wider universe of hydraulic fracturing if information collected during this study indicates further investigation is warranted."
Q: What about the study EPA is conducting?
A: On July 25, 2000, EPA published its intent to conduct a study of environmental risks associated with hydraulic fracturing. The notice included the publication of a study design and requested public input to improve the design. The study will determine if actual and potential risks to underground sources of drinking water associated with methane coal production are present.
Specifically, the study will:
Evaluate potential risk based on geology, best available technology and common industry practices.
Survey existing state regulations and legislation.
Data sources include interviews with state and local agencies responsible for drinking water protection, citizens and industries performing hydraulic fracturing. A bibliography will be published at the conclusion of the study that will provide information on the potential risks posed by hydraulic fracturing of coal beds in areas likely to be developed for methane gas production.
The published completion date for the study is Winter 2002. The public comment draft is expected to be published in Fall 2001.
Q: Why is EPA conducting the study?
A: While the 11th Circuit Court was deliberating, EPA received citizen complaints that their drinking water wells have been contaminated by practices associated with methane gas production from coal beds, and that their wells have suffered groundwater loss. In addition, due to current natural gas market conditions in the United States, coalbed methane development is increasing.
Q: What comments were made at the public meeting on Aug. 24, 2000?
A: GWPC testified that hydraulic fracturing of coal beds used for the production of methane gas does not appear to present a public health risk. In addition, the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC) criticized EPA for placing "more weight on anonymous phone calls than on the expert opinions of states or scientific studies." DOE (Office of Fossil Energy) stated that no confirmed reports of groundwater contamination related to hydraulic fracturing have been documented.
Q: Have there been other studies prior to the current EPA undertaking?
A: Yes. The GWPC conducted a first survey that was published in 1998. Results showed no incidents of groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing; however, the survey was criticized for only gathering data from the oil and gas agencies. GWPC has since initiated a new survey to both water agencies and oil and gas agencies and has invited EPA to participate in their survey.