This headline exploded across the country last week following the Environmental Protection Agency’s report that fracking was the cause behind polluted drinking water in Pavillion, Wyoming. At face value, this appeared to be a major setback for fracking–and the momentum behind shale gas–as claims of ground water pollution are the loudest and most prevalent arguments against the practice. As conclusive as those headlines might have appeared, there are several aspects particular to the situation at Pavillion that will likely prove controversial enough to delay major legislation or regulation for the entire fracking industry in the near future.
Like many other technologies, the suitability of the technology to the situation should be considered.
The EPA itself noted a number of features at the Pavillion wells that deviated from fracking methods used more generally, such as different geological characteristics, shallower wells, vertical fracking and the proximity of fracking activities to the drinking-water aquifer. Notably, the production well records show that hydraulic fracturing at the Pavillion wells occurred as shallow as 1,220 feet below the surface, with the surface casing as shallow as 361 feet. (Typically, casing is run as deep as 4,000 feet, with fracking occurring at more than 6,000 feet below the surface – depths far below the water table.) The study also cited a review of well-completion reports that showed inconsistent cementing of the casing.
The geology of the area also differs from that of other major gas-producing shale formations such as the Marcellus in Pennsylvania and the Barnett in Texas. In the Pavillion wells, fracking occurs from both the Wind River and the underlying Fort Union formations, which together extend from the surface to approximately 3,000 feet below ground. As the EPA states, fracking is “taking place in and below the drinking water aquifer and in close proximity to drinking water wells.”
In contrast, both the Marcellus and the Barnett formations, in addition to being several thousand feet deeper, have layers of limestone that act as barriers between the shale – where the gas extraction takes place – and the water table. These distinct geologic characteristics therefore invalidate any extrapolation of the conclusions regarding contamination from fracking activities at Pavillion compared to that of the Marcellus or the Barnett, where fracking takes place 6,000 feet or more below the surface and with the aid of a rock barrier between drilling and drinking water.
Furthermore, the EPA also noted that the detected levels of methane and other chemical compounds were “generally below established health and safety standards,” meaning that they don’t pose a serious risk to public health. For the EPA to propose extensive regulations on drinking-water contamination on the basis of public health protection, they may have to first revise their established health and safety standards, which would be a significantly larger undertaking.
Finally, the EPA admitted in the conclusion of the draft report that there were a number of chemicals detected in the monitoring wells that were not detected in the concentrated solutions of drilling additives, including synthetic organic compounds and petroleum hydrocarbons. This raises a very salient concern regarding the implied causal connection at the heart of the draft report. If a significant number of the contaminants alleged to be a result of hydraulic fracturing activities were not in fact found in the concentrated solutions of drilling additives, it is difficult to see how the EPA can justify the claim that drinking water contamination was caused exclusively by fracturing activities.
That said, the fact that there exists such variability in fracking methodology may justify fracking opponents and their push for expanded federal oversight, including increased transparency and a review of fracking’s exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act. On the other hand, the fracking industry could claim that exceptional circumstances at the Pavillion operation should not reflect upon industry practices as a whole. In the end, the draft report provides both fracking proponents and opponents with more ammunition to continue the current standoff over increasing federal oversight.
Nevertheless, it would be irresponsibly premature to simply cast the blame on fracking as the primary cause of groundwater contamination while other likely and common causes exist. Like many other technologies, the suitability of the technology to the situation should be considered. Perhaps fracking in shallow formations located in drinking-water aquifers isn’t such a good idea, and perhaps proper well construction practices should be enforced to ensure proper well-casing design and construction. All the same, in light of the Pavillion report, these conclusions do not justify the drawing of a direct causal link between fracking and groundwater contamination.
Tzu-Yuan Su is the Senior Regulatory Analyst at Fellon-McCord. Tzu-Yuan Su joined Fellon-McCord in August 2009 as a regulatory analyst in the risk management and research group. He is an executive editor of Fellon-McCord’s publications, and works with clients and internal personnel to provide strategic analysis of political, legislative and regulatory intelligence. Tzu-Yuan received his A.B. in Philosophy from Harvard University. He is also a critically acclaimed violinist, and his solo performances have been publicly televised in all seven of the world’s continents.
Photo Caption: (TOP) A natural gas well drilling rig stands in the distance April 19, 2001 as the wind turns the blades of a wind-powered water pump in Sublette County, WY. (ABOVE) Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.