The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in early December issued a draft report that said its study showed that hydraulic fracturing may have contaminated the ground water in Pavillion, Wyomng, but the “fracking” industry says that the study may be inconclusive and may not apply to other fracking regions of the country. More than one third of all natural gas drilling uses hydraulic fracturing and the percentage is rising rapidly as regions such as the Marcellus in Pennsylvania grow.
It is the first major study to detect linkage between hydrofracking and ground-water pollution and the study has not been peer reviewed by independent scientific analysts. Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead called the study “highly questionable.”
The EPA launched the study following complaints in the Pavillion area of odor problems in well water, but critics point out that the USGS has detected organic chemicals in the region’s well water for at least 50 years (population 170), long before hydrofracturing began. The EPA admits that the detections in drinking water are below established health and safety standards, and that the dangerous compound found was 2-butoxyethyl phosphate (2-BE). The Petroleum Association of Wyomng says that 2-BE is a chemical used as a fire retardent and in plastic components used in drinking wells, but not used in hydrofracking. The pollution that EPA found was in EPA deep-water monitoring wells, located near a natural gas deposit, far below shallow-water drinking wells. Encana corp., which owns more than 100 natural gas wells around Pavillion, says it “didn’t put the natural gas at the bottom of the EPA’s deep monitoring wells. Nature did.” The EPA admits the chemicals detected in its monitoring wells may have resulted from “legacy pits,” old wells drilled before fracking began. The EPA admits that inferior design of the Pavillion older wells allows seepage into the region’s water supply and that modern well constructions may prevent such seepage.
The EPA Wyoming experience will probably have no bearing on Pennsylvania’s deep-drilling Marcellus hydrofracturing experience since the Marcellus shale deposits are so much deeper than those in Wyoming and since well technology has adanced so dramatically and rapidly in recent decades. However, Pennsylvania has an estimated 60,000 legacy well holes with no casings, or inferior ones that may have already leaked natural contaminants into some of the state’s ground waters and drinking wells. The EPA study needs careful study, for contamination of the ground waters of Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, New York, and New Jersey by hydrofracking operations could spell the end of this new industry. The EPA does not regulate the hydraulic-fracking industry under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, the states do. But there is every indication that EPA is looking at possible regionwide environmental impacts of hydraulic-frackturing operations at a time when hydrocarbons are in disfavor. Hydraulic fracturing could become even more political.