EPA report doesn’t end fracking debate | PostIndependent.com

EPA report doesn’t end fracking debate

Mead Gruver
The Associated Press
Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
FILE - In this Sept. 10, 2009 photo, Louis Meeks holds a jar filled with water from a contaminated well on his property near in Pavillion, Wyo. The ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is asking the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for more information about an EPA investigation into groundwater contamination in a Wyoming gas field. Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe asked EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in a letter Tuesday to explain a recent comment she made about the contamination in the Pavillion area in central Wyoming. Jackson told a Bloomberg news program last month that a petroleum industry practice called hydraulic fracturing could have affected nearby areas containing groundwater. (AP Photo/Casper Star-Tribune, Kerry Huller,)
AP | The Casper Star-Tribune

CHEYENNE, Wyo. – A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency draft finding that it may have detected groundwater pollution in Wyoming resulting from the hydraulic fracturing technique used in modern oil and gas development isn’t settled science yet.

Nor is it settled politics, especially where fracking has opened up vast new oil and gas reserves and created economic opportunities that might not otherwise exist.

And so the debate over fracking is likely to continue.

Colorado regulators are reviewing the draft report on groundwater pollution in the Pavillion, Wyo., area, and the possible link to hydraulic fracturing.

The director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, Dave Neslin, says the commission has been following the Pavillion case and will take a close look at the draft findings issued by the EPA on Thursday.

The commission is set to vote Monday on a proposal to require the disclosure of all fracking fluids used in Colorado, following a day-long hearing held Dec. 5.

Neslin says regulators assume all fracking fluids are potentially hazardous and already take precautions to protect groundwater.

Well sampling has been expanded in the northern Front Range gas fields and Neslin says the commission is working with the industry to expand sampling across the state.

Environmentalists have been sounding the alarm about fracking in Colorado, Pennsylvania, New York and other places with gas drilling. They lauded Thursday’s announcement concerning pollution in a central Wyoming community as a long time coming.

“In Wyoming, EPA is recognizing what experts – along with families in fracking communities across the country – have known for some time,” Kate Sinding, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York City, said in an e-mail Thursday. “Fracking poses serious threats to safe drinking water.”

Jan Jarrett, president of the environmental group PennFuture, said the news underscores the need for more research and protections in Pennsylvania.

“It really highlights the importance of getting the best possible safeguards in place,” he said, adding that the report also shows that hydraulic fracking is not foolproof, as some in the industry have claimed.

The EPA emphasized that its announcement that it had found chemicals likely associated with gas production practices, including fracking, was just the first step in a review of its science. The draft report opens up a 45-day public comment period and a 30-day peer review process by independent scientists.

Even so, the oil and gas industry and its allies blasted the announcement as premature.

“Unsubstantiated statements coming from the EPA today stretch the data and cause unwarranted alarm and concern about a proven technology that allows our industry to safely extract oil and natural gas. The EPA’s announcement is irresponsible and leads us to call into question its motives,” said Bruce Hinchey, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming.

The practice called hydraulic fracturing is aimed at improving the productivity of oil and gas wells. It involves pumping pressurized water, sand and chemicals underground to open fissures and improve the flow of oil or gas to the surface.

Sen. James Inhofe called the study “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,” the Oklahoma Republican said.

Residents of Pavillion long have said their drinking water stinks of chemicals and is giving them health problems. Health officials last year recommended that they not drink their water and ventilate their bathrooms while showering.

Industry officials pointed out that the EPA announcement didn’t focus on those domestic water wells but two wells drilled somewhat deeper into the aquifer specifically to test for pollution.

Moreover, the compounds could have had other origins not related to gas development, said Doug Hock, spokesman for Calgary, Alberta-based Encana, owner of the Pavillion gas field.

“Those could just have likely been brought about by contamination in their sampling process or construction of their well,” Hock said.

An announced $45 million sale of the Pavillion field to Midland, Texas-based Legacy Reserves fell through last month amid what Encana said were Legacy’s concerns about the EPA investigation.

The EPA, which has been studying the groundwater in Pavillion for more than two years, also emphasized that the preliminary findings are specific to the Pavillion area, not necessarily anywhere else in the U.S. The agency said the fracking that occurred in Pavillion differed from fracking methods used in regions with different geological characteristics.

The fracking occurred below the level of the drinking water aquifer and close to water wells, the EPA said. Elsewhere, drilling is more remote and fracking occurs much deeper than the level of groundwater that would normally be used.

“EPA’s highest priority remains ensuring that Pavillion residents have access to safe drinking water,” said Jim Martin, EPA regional administrator in Denver. “We look forward to having these findings in the draft report informed by a transparent and public review process.”

The draft EPA report and the upcoming critiques of it come as states and the federal government continue to ponder whether and how to regulate fracking.

Last year, Wyoming became one of the first states to require oil and gas companies to publicly disclose the chemicals used in fracking. Colorado regulators are considering doing the same.

The public and industry representatives packed an 11-hour hearing on the issue in Denver on Monday. They all generally supported the proposal but the sticking point is whether trade secrets would have to be disclosed and how quickly the information would have to be turned over.

Associated Press writers Colleen Slevin in Denver, Mary Esch in Albany, N.Y., and Kevin Begos in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.

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