Last week, the EPA published its draft report, Investigation of Ground Water Contamination Near Pavillion, Wyoming. The report summarized a multi-year study conducted by the EPA after years of landowner complaints about petroleum products, natural gas, and chemical smells in their drinking water. Pavillion is a small town in the Wind River basin of central Wyoming, home to 169 gas wells. The field around Pavillion was discovered in the 1960s, and was actively drilled up until the early 2000s. Frac’ing became very active in the last 20 years as technology improved and some additives were not reported by frac companies, citing proprietary technology.
When the report was released, reaction was swift from both sides of the controversy. Environmental groups hailed the report and pro-industry voices questioned it with many accusing the EPA of bias. Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma said the report was “not based on sound science but rather on political science…Its findings are premature, given that the Agency has not gone through the necessary peer-review process, and there are still serious outstanding questions regarding EPA’s data and methodology.” Encana, the oil and gas company who now owns the wells around Pavillion, issued a statement criticizing the EPA saying,
“This precipitous action runs counter to the cooperative approach that Encana and other state, federal, and local participants in the Pavillion Working Group took in working alongside the EPA in its investigation for more than 3 years.”
Critics like Inhofe complain that the EPA issued the report as a draft that had not been peer-reviewed, but in fact that is why the report was issued, for public comment and peer review. When the EPA issued the report, it gave notice of a 45 day public comment period followed by a 30 day peer review period. I read the report this week, which, at 121 pages, is highly technical and granular in its analysis. The body of the report is 39 pages; the rest is filled with technical references including detailed reporting of samples from EPA monitoring wells and domestic water wells, photographs of the drilling of the deep monitoring wells and sampling techniques. Samples from over 30 domestic water wells, shallow monitoring wells near open pits, and 2 deep monitoring wells were analyzed. Clearly, I’m not a biologist or chemist, but when I see the analyses of hundreds of water samples from domestic water wells, as well as deep and shallow monitoring wells taken over a period of 3 years, it’s clear that scientific rigor was employed in this report, and it’s findings are disturbing.
For example, a synthetic compound, tert-butyl alcohol, was found in one of the deep monitoring wells. Here’s what the report said about the compound on page 35:
Another synthetic compound, tert-butyl alcohol, was detected in MW02 at a concentration of 4470 μg/L. Tert-butyl alcohol is a known breakdown product of methyl tert- butyl ether (a fuel additive) and tert-butyl hydroperoxide (a gel breaker used in hydraulic fracturing).
then, noting that proprietary chemicals were not reported by frac companies:
Material Safety Data Sheets do not indicate that tert-butyl hydroperoxide was used in the Pavillion gas field. The source of this compound remains unresolved. However, tert-butyl alcohol is not expected to occur naturally in ground water. Material Safety Data Sheets do not contain proprietary information and the chemical ingredients of many additives.
The tough truth, at least in Pavillion Wyoming, is that the presence of hydrocarbons and synthetic compounds in ground water point to contamination by drilling and frac’ing operations. There’s not much question about that, unless objective independent peer review of the study uncovers fatal flaws in this report. Surface casing set too shallow, poor cement bonding, and frac operations simply too close vertically from ground water formations were likely the causes of this particular contamination, as well as some coming from the surface pits.
In the early years, the oil and gas business was massively destructive…wells blew out regularly, production water and oil spills were common, open pits were standard operating procedure, and countless millions of barrels of fresh water were destroyed. When I started my career in the business back in the 1970s, some of these abuses were still common, though environmental and safety protections have now become the new standard, albeit with some reluctance from the industry itself. Some of that reluctance to adhere to safety standards exploded (literally) into public view during last year’s Macondo well disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Like the Gulf blowout, hydraulic fracturing in the gas shales that are being exploited from South Texas to New York has raised public awareness of the risks of oil and gas operations, both to safety and environmental impact. The industry, and the politicians who support it, dismiss these risks, even in the face of objective evidence to the contrary. The environmental community also over-reacts, calling for an immediate and permanent halt to drilling for natural gas. That, of course, is simply not feasible for obvious reasons, not the least of which is the chance, for the first time in over half a century, for the US to minimize imports of oil from countries who hate us. If we halted domestic production, both onshore and offshore, we would lose complete control of our energy security, subjecting ourselves to the whim and volatility of the unstable regimes who produce world supply.
So…what’s the solution? It’s not easy, but it is pragmatic. First, we have to acknowledge our need for energy, while at the same time recognizing the necessity of reducing our per capita burn of hydrocarbon BTUs (the highest in the world). We also have to be realistic about our ability to reduce traditional sources of energy in favor of renewables and conservation. Nuclear, an emissions free alternative, has its own dangerous shortcomings as we’ve seen at Three Mile Island and Fukushima. We also have to recognize that global demand for energy will continue simply due to population growth. Natural gas, a cleaner burning alternative to oil, certainly adds tremendously to the mix of available BTUs, and new drilling and completion technologies (including hydraulic fracturing) have opened up huge shale resources around the world, especially in the US. Without hydraulic fracturing, gas from shales, along with many conventional sources, drop precipitously, an unacceptable alternative.
While this report certainly doesn’t condemn all frac’ing, there are ground water contamination cases in other areas such as Pennsylvania, along with Pavillion; the industry must stop denying the risks and start managing those risks more transparently. For energy security and certainty of energy supply, we need to develop the resources available to us. However, we can’t do that effectively if the public believes (with good anecdotal evidence) that we are poisoning the environment. Public acknowledgement of the risks, aggressive environmental management, as well as transparent communication all contribute to everyone being better informed. At the same time, the environmental community needs to acknowledge its own contribution to our energy burn and stop just saying no to necessary and responsible development. They are right to advocate for the environment; we all should. However, unless they never drive a car, ride in a bus, fly in an airliner, heat their homes, or use manufactured goods, they contribute to our energy consumption as much as everyone else.
Our energy needs are critical to our security and economic growth. However, if we can’t develop a way to supply our needs without poisoning local resources, we go backwards. I happen to believe that we can produce energy and manage the risks to the environment; but that takes an effort from both sides to understand, then manage the risks before the damage is done.
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