Last updated: February 19. 2013 4:31PM - 256 Views

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PITTSBURGH — A top official with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is optimistic that a nationwide project examining natural gas hydraulic fracturing and potential drinking water impacts will provide comprehensive guidelines to help scientists and the public identify the key issues to focus on. But the industry said past studies have already shown the process is safe.

Glenn Paulson, the EPA's science advisor, said Friday that a progress report on the study — mandated by Congress in 2010 — should be released before the end of the year, and a final report in 2014. He spoke at a University of Pittsburgh conference on health impacts of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Paulson said the study of fracking and drinking water is one of the most aggressive public outreach programs in EPA history. He said the progress report will show the range and depth of what EPA is looking at, and will be open to public comment.

It will really be a lot for experts to chew on in their particular fields, Paulson said, noting that EPA is reaching out to geologists, academic experts, the industry, environmental groups, and even Indian tribes.

I think the drinking water study is going to be useful to local governments, and state governments, too, Paulson said. He added that a lot of people have their minds made up about fracking, even though many aspects of research are still in the early stages.

Paulson said the Obama administration is providing enough support to study the issue. The EPA says in the project overview that natural gas plays a key role in our nation's clean energy future but that serious concerns have been raised about potential impacts to the environment and human health.

The fracking process has made it possible to tap into deep reserves of oil and gas. Large volumes of water, along with sand and hazardous chemicals, are injected underground to break rock apart and free the oil and gas. Contaminated wastewater from the process can leak from faulty well casings into aquifers, but it's often difficult to trace underground sources of pollution. Some studies also have shown air quality problems around gas wells, while others have indicated no problems.

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