December 10, 2011
EPA Findings Reignite Debate Over ‘Fracking’
In the first such case on record, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claims that it has discovered synthetic chemicals associated with natural gas fracking in a Wyoming aquifer.
Some thirty percent of the U.S. domestic supply of natural gas is obtained by hydraulic fracturing, an extraction technique that uses millions of gallons of a solution of water and chemicals to break open underground rock and release trapped gas. EPA experts say that some of these chemicals, including synthesized glycols and alcohols, have been detected in a subterranean drinking-water reservoir near a gas field in Pavillion, Wyoming.
The discovery was made after Pavillion residents began lodging complaints about their drinking water in 2008. The EPA subsequently began a three-year study of hundreds of water wells in and around the small northern Wyoming community of less than 200 residents.
In the course of their study, the EPA dug two deep monitoring wells into the aquifer and discovered several chemicals that they say are "likely associated with gas-production practices" such as fracking. The agency also stated, however, that they could not yet definitively state the precise source of the contamination.
According to the agency, the levels of the synthetic compounds discovered in the wells were "well above" standards set in the Safe Drinking Water Act. Last year the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommended that residents of the small town switch to store-bought water for drinking and cooking.
The findings have already incited a number of environmental groups to launch and offensive against the mining practice.
In a recent interview with Jim Efstathiou Jr. of Bloomberg, Amy Mall of the environmental organization Natural Resources Defense Council called the discovery a "game-change."
"This is just evidence of why we need better rules," she told Efstathiou, adding that "EPA experts and scientists have recognized that there is real contamination, that there is a real scientific basis for linking [the discovery of the chemicals] to fracking."
Steve Jones of the Wyoming Outdoor Council had similar comments when asked about the subject by Mead Gruver of the Associated Press (AP): "This is an important first indication that there are potential problems with fracking that can impact domestic water wells. It's a clarion call to the industry to make sure they take a great deal of care in their drilling practices."
Spokesmen for the natural gas industry have responded by pointing to the tenuousness of the EPA's discoveries.
Doug Hock of the Canadian natural-gas concern Encana Corp. pointed out to Bloomberg that there is not yet any conclusive evidence that the chemicals were, in fact, directly attributable to fracking.
"They've used terms like 'likely'", he explained to Bloomberg's Efstathiou. "What they've come up with here is a probability. It's not a definitive conclusion." The discovery of the chemicals, he indicated, could simply be contamination from their own sampling procedures, hinting that the company may eventually call in third-party experts to examine the EPA's claims.
Aubrey McClendon, CEO of the American drilling firm Chesapeake Energy Corp., believes this to be just another in a series of unsubstantiated attempts to stigmatize the industry.
"Try not to be the 51st person to write a story about the alleged contamination of somebody's water well from fracking," he said earlier this year at the Society of American Business Editors and Writers conference in Dallas. "There have been some issues with drilling wells. They don't come from fracking."
And Bruce Hinchey, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming has called the EPA statements "unsubstantiated", telling the AP that they had "stretched the data" in order to incite "unwarranted alarm and concern about a proven technology that allows our industry to safely extract oil and natural gas."
Putting aside the political squabbling, the government's environmental agency has stated that it is particularly concerned about containing the pollutants.
"Given the area's complex geology and the proximity of drinking water wells to ground water contamination, EPA is concerned about the movement of contaminants within the aquifer and the safety of drinking-water wells over time."
On the Net:
- Department of Health and Human Services
- Natural Resources Defense Council
- Wyoming Outdoor Council
- Encana Corp.
- Chesapeake Energy Corp.
- Society of American Business Editors and Writers
- Petroleum Association of Wyoming