EPA to link fracking, water contamination in Wyo.

Source: Mike Soraghan • E&E  • Posted: Friday, December 9, 2011

U.S. EPA is expected to announce later today that hydraulic fracturing and other gas drilling practices played a role in contaminating drinking water in a Wyoming community, contradicting an industry talking point used repeatedly in efforts to prevent increased federal regulation of oil and gas production.

The draft report is expected to say testing in Pavillion, Wyo., “indicates groundwater in the aquifer contains compounds likely associated with gas production practices including hydraulic fracturing,” according to a portion of the report read to Greenwire.The draft will stress that the findings are preliminary and still must go through peer review. The agency is also expected to say that it should not be used as an example to say that fracturing could contaminate groundwater elsewhere.

But the report is already drawing criticism from backers of the oil and gas industry. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) went straight from a phone conversation with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to the microphone at a Senate hearing today to open fire on the findings.

“This announcement is part of President Obama’s war on fossil fuels and his determination to shut down natural gas production,” Inhofe said. “It is irresponsible for EPA to release such an explosive announcement without objective peer review.”

Inhofe said Jackson committed that EPA would release all the data, methodologies and protocols used in the Pavillion investigation. But she would not commit to deeming it a “Highly Influential Scientific Study (HISA),” which would require it to undergo heightened peer review. Instead, Inhofe said Jackson told him she would get back to him.

Inhofe and others have criticized EPA for not using that level of peer review for the endangerment finding that forms the basis for proposed regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.

Inhofe is among the defenders of fracturing in particular who have emphasized the point, acknowledged by EPA officials, that there has never been a proven case of the specific fracturing process contaminating groundwater in the decades since the process was invented. Operators and service companies have been repeatedly penalized by regulators for water contamination from fracturing and other production practices at the surface.

The Environmental Working Group has unearthed a 24-year-old EPA case study that detailed an instance of fracturing causing water contamination at a gas well in West Virginia. But officials did not collect chemical samples of the drilling fluids used for fracturing, so they could not test the contaminated water for the presence of those chemicals.

Fracturing was exempted by a 2005 energy bill from needing prior approval from regulators under the Safe Drinking Water Act, a provision that critics deride as the “Halliburton loophole,” because the well-known energy services company lobbied for the exemption.

Because of his strongly held belief that there has never been such an instance of water pollution and in his role as the ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that oversees EPA, Inhofe has bird-dogged the Pavillion study almost since it began.

Wyoming officials have been less critical. Gov. Matt Mead (R) has called for a broad investigation into contamination of Pavillion groundwater. Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) have issued vague statements saying that residents deserved answers. Barrasso indicated he has “worked with the EPA.” Enzi emphasized that EPA determined the town’s drinking water is contaminated “without identifying the source” (E&E Daily, Sept. 17, 2010)

But one way or another, many people in the small community of Pavillion have stopped drinking the local water because of concerns that years of drilling have left it contaminated.

Encana Corp., which drills in the area’s gas field, has denied the link between drilling and the contamination and said EPA drilled its monitoring wells in a natural gas zone.

EPA results released in early November from two monitoring wells showed high levels of methane, benzene and other chemicals in the groundwater. The tests also indicated the presence of 2-Butoxyethanol — a widely used fracking chemical often called “2Be” — but EPA did not interpret its findings at the time nor did it attempt to find the pollution’s source.

But in the weeks that followed, Jackson went a step further and for the first time raised the possibility of a link between the contamination and fracturing.

“It is possible that fracking in one bearing zone may have impacted nearby areas that may contain some groundwater,” she recently told the TV show EnergyNOW.

Today’s report takes the “possibility” of a link in this instance to “likely.”

But Inhofe said that contradicts what he has been told by EPA.

“As recently as November 9, 2011, EPA Regional Administrator James Martin said that the results of the latest round of testing in Pavillion were not significantly different from the first two rounds of testing, which showed no link between hydraulic fracturing and contamination,” Inhofe said. “Yet only a few weeks later, EPA has decided the opposite. EPA is clearly not prepared to be making conclusions.”

Inhofe yesterday released a letter criticizing Jackson’s comments in the television interview, calling them contradictory (E&ENews PM, Dec. 7).

EPA’s response to that letter said that it released the results of the study to people in Pavillion to make sure they stay fully informed and added that they were also shared with Encana, local American Indian tribes and state officials.

“EPA scientists are continuing to complete their analysis of those data and we are working hard to complete a report interpreting the findings very soon,” the report said. “To ensure that we have the best quality data, we will also send the report to a panel of independent scientists for review and will have a period of public comment for people throughout the country, including the Pavillion community to provide their comments before we finalize the findings.”

A spokesman for Mead indicated this morning that state officials in Wyoming have not seen anything from EPA about an announcement coming today.

Click here for the draft report.