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Answering Questions about EPA's Plan to Study Hydraulic Fracturing

EPA scientist shares information about a recently released research plan.

EPA Scientist Jeanne Briskin

Nathan Gentry, the host of the Science Matters podcast sat down with EPA scientist Jeanne Briskin, who helped lead the design of the Agency’s recently-released Plan to Study the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing on Drinking Water Resources.

Here are some highlights adapted from their discussion.

Nathan Gentry: Hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” has been in the news a lot lately.  I think a good place for us to start is: what is fracking?

Jeanne Briskin: Hydraulic fracturing is a method to get natural gas or oil from petroleum bearing rocks or geology.

First, you take water and mix in chemicals and sand, and inject that underground at high pressure to fracture the rock that contains the mineral resource, the natural gas or oil. That creates surface area for the gas or oil to flow up to the surface.

Nathan Gentry: Why is the EPA study so important? How does the science matter?

Jeanne Briskin: People are very interested in hydraulic fracturing because they are interested in the both the resource—the gas and oil that can be produced domestically here in the United States—and because some people have concerns about the environmental and public health impacts that they fear may be associated with hydraulic fracturing.

Nathan Gentry:  What was your role in the formulation of the study plan?

Jeanne Briskin: I serve as a study coordinator, working with research scientists all over the country to identify the key pieces of research that we think are necessary to answer our primary research question. That is: are there any impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources?  And if so, what might be the causes, or drivers of those impacts?    

Nathan Gentry:  Were there opportunities for input from the public or outside scientists to plan the study?

Jeanne Briskin: Yes. There was an unprecedented amount of opportunity for many people to provide input to the study.

We had stakeholder meetings in four different states across the country. Thousands of people attended the meetings, and we received hundred of comments. We were able to take those comments together with comments from technical experts that make up our peer review panel to formulate our study plan.

Nathan Gentry:  What did you learn from all that public input?

Jeanne Briskin: We learned that it’s important for us to take a broad look at hydraulic fracturing and the potential impact on drinking water resources.

As endorsed by EPA’s Science Advisory Board, we are looking at the entire water cycle when it comes to hydraulic fracturing: from water acquisition through the fracking process, to the creation and disposal of wastewater associated with the fracking process.

Nathan Gentry:  EPA describes the study as “scientifically rigorous.” Can you explain what that means?

Jeanne Briskin: We are going to use state-of-the-art science—using the most up-to-date analytical chemistry methods, for example, in the water sampling we are doing. We are making sure we get input from technical experts from industry all over the country, so that we have a really good technical appreciation for the technology.

In addition to working with EPA’s best scientists from all disciplines relevant to the study, we’ve had our study plan peer reviewed. The results of the research will be peer reviewed by the premiere science panel, the EPA science Advisory Board. This independent group of national experts will go through our work with a fine toothed-comb to make sure it stand up to the highest quality standards and has well-supported conclusions.

Nathan Gentry:  What is the number one question you get from those interested in the study?

Jeanne Briskin: That’s a good question. The number one question we get depends on who is asking: “why are you—or are not—studying my particular area of interest?”

So for us, it’s really a matter of understanding carefully what the underlying concern is for the person asking the question. Then we can show them how the science is addressing their concern, or show them how their particular area of concern is really outside of the charge EPA has been given from Congress.

Nathan Gentry:  When do you expect results of the study to be released?

Jeanne Briskin: We expect a first report of findings to come out in 2012, and a second report with the remainder of the findings to come out in 2014.

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