On Fracking’s Public Image, EPA Tries Having It Both Ways

by William Yeatman on January 20, 2012

in Blog

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The Environmental Protection Agency’s words and deeds are far apart when it comes to hydraulic fracturing, the technolution in natural gas drilling that has roughly doubled economically obtainable reserves of U.S. gas in only the last decade.

Last evening, Energy and Environment News PM (subscription required) reported that, “U.S. EPA wants to boost the public’s confidence in natural gas so production levels continue to rise, an agency official said today at a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.”

Last month in Pavilion, Wyoming, however, EPA imparted the opposite. Far from “boosting the public’s confidence” in hydraulic fracturing (which now is virtually synonymous with the American gas industry), EPA perpetrated shoddy science in an effort to undercut the drilling technique’s public image.

Here’s the back story. Hydraulic fracturing entails drilling down thousands of feet into layers of porous shale rock, and then horizontally. So it’s like an inverted “T,” deep in the earth. Then, thousands of gallons of fluid is pumped down (about 99 percent water, and 1 percent lubricants and sand), which breaks apart the shale, and releases natural gas. Environmentalists (of course) oppose hydraulic fracturing, and they’ve pinned their opposition on hysterical, unfounded allegations that the drilling practice threatens America’s water supply. In fact, “fracking,” as hydraulic fracturing is known, has been used in more than 1 million wells, and there is ZERO conclusive evidence that the process could contaminate water tables used for utility scale water supply. According to the oil and gas industry, it is impossible for fracking to contaminate utility scale water supplies, because the gas is extracted from rock formations that lay thousands of feet beneath the water table. This is not to say that industry’s record is spotless: There are a handful of instances, most notably in Dimrock, Pennsylvania, whereby poorly built fracking rigs resulted in the contamination of local well water with methane (i.e., natural gas). Methane isn’t toxic, but it could pose an explosion threat. However, methane seepage laterally at ground level is far different than fracking fluids somehow migrating upwards, against the flow of gravity, thousands of feet through rock to pollute the water table. Environmentalists, having no evidence to support their hyperbolic claims, instead attempt to conflate methane well-water seepage with contamination of utility-scale water aquifers by fracking fluids. This is disingenuous.

Given this history of allegations and conflations regarding fracking’s impact on water, it was a huge bombshell last month when EPA issued a press release, claiming that deep water samples it had collected from Pavillion, Wyoming, “indicates that ground water in the aquifer contains compounds likely associated with gas production practices, including hydraulic fracturing.”

For environmentalists, this could be the smoking gun in the case against fracking. For industry, it could be a public relations nightmare. A long-held talking point–that fracking could not possible contaminate an aquifer–was in doubt. All of this is to say that EPA’s announcement was consequential.

However, doubts quickly were raised about EPA’s methodology. Over at Energy in Depth, there is a superb rundown of the apparent problems. Below, I quote one of 6 questions the site poses to EPA, although I urge you to read the whole thing.

1) Why the huge difference between what EPA found in its monitoring wells and what was detected in private wells from which people actually get their water?

  • Contrary to what was reported yesterday, the compounds of greatest concern detected by EPA in Pavillion weren’t found in water wells that actually supply residents their water – they were detected by two “monitoring wells” drilled by EPA outside of town.
  • After several rounds of EPA testing of domestic drinking water wells in town, only one organic compound (bis (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate) was found to exceed state or federal drinking water standards – an additive in plastics and one of the most commonly detected organic compounds in water. According to EPA: “Detections in drinking water wells are generally below established health and safety standards.”
  • Bruce Hinchey, president of Petroleum Association of Wyoming: “Let me be clear, the EPA’s findings indicate that there is no connection between oil and natural gas operations and impacts to domestic water wells.” (PAW press release, Dec. 8, 2011)
  • In contrast, EPA found “a wide variety of organic chemicals” in its two monitoring wells, with greater concentrations found in the deeper of the two. The only problem? EPA drilled its monitoring wells into a hydrocarbon-bearing formation. Think it’s possible that could explain the presence of hydrocarbons?
  • According to governor of Wyoming: “The study released today from EPA was based on data from two test wells drilled in 2010 and tested once that year and once in April, 2011. Those test wells are deeper than drinking wells. The data from the test wells was not available to the rest of the working group until a month ago.” (Gov. Mead press release, issued Dec. 8, 2011)

In late December, Jeremy Fugleberg, of the Casper Star Tribune, reported on other problems with EPA’s analysis that were noted by Wyoming officials:

Yet the EPA’s own data — including details not mentioned in the draft report — indicates the agency’s conclusions are partially based on improperly analyzed samples from six private drinking-water wells and two EPA-drilled deep monitoring wells in Pavillion.

The EPA also found contamination in pure water control samples, didn’t purge the test wells properly before gathering samples and didn’t mention in its report whether it tested water carried by a truck used in well drilling, say officials with the Wyoming Water Development Commission who, because of their expertise on water wells, reviewed the EPA’s publicly available information.

“They didn’t follow their own protocol they would’ve required of other people doing this same type of work,” said Mike Purcell, director of the water development commission staff, which does water planning and infrastructure development in the state.

In light of these apparent problems with EPA’s conclusion that fracking “likely” polluted groundwater in Pavillion, it is perplexing that EPA did not conduct a peer-review of its analysis before it issued a press-release announcing its preliminary findings. Indeed, it wasn’t until last Wednesday, more than a month after the press release, that EPA published in the Federal Register a solicitation for experts to review the results of its Pavillion study. In effect, the Agency rushed out the door poorly vetted “science” that goes to the heart of a hugely controversial matter.

By rashly releasing its non-peer-reviewed Pavillion analysis, EPA essentially gave the gas industry a public relations spanking without due cause. It is, therefore, with many grains of salt that America’s mayors should receive EPA’s claim that it “wants to boost the public’s confidence in natural gas.”

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