Breaking down the facts in that Wyoming drinking water study.
The shale gas boom has been a rare bright spot in the U.S. economy, so much of the country let out a shudder two weeks ago when the Environmental Protection Agency issued a "draft" report that the drilling process of hydraulic fracturing may have contaminated ground water in Pavillion, Wyoming. The good news is that the study is neither definitive nor applicable to the rest of the country.
"When considered together with other lines of evidence, the data indicates likely impact to ground water that can be explained by hydraulic fracking," said the EPA report, referring to the drilling process that blasts water and chemicals into shale rock to release oil and natural gas. The news caused elation among environmentalists and many in the media who want to shut down fracking.
More than one-third of all natural gas drilling now uses fracking, and that percentage is rising. If the EPA Wyoming study holds up under scrutiny, an industry that employs tens of thousands could be in peril.
But does it stand up? This is the first major study to have detected linkage between fracking and ground-water pollution, and the EPA draft hasn't been peer reviewed by independent scientific analysts. Critics are already picking apart the study, which Wyoming Governor Matt Mead called "scientifically questionable."
The EPA says it launched the study in response to complaints "regarding objectionable taste and odor problems in well water." What it doesn't say is that the U.S. Geological Survey has detected organic chemicals in the well water in Pavillion (population 175) for at least 50 years—long before fracking was employed. There are other problems with the study that either the EPA failed to disclose or the press has given little attention to:
• The EPA study concedes that "detections in drinking water wells are generally below [i.e., in compliance with] established health and safety standards." The dangerous compound EPA says it found in the drinking wells was 2-butoxyethyl phosphate. The Petroleum Association of Wyoming says that 2-BE isn't an oil and gas chemical but is a common fire retardant used in association with plastics and plastic components used in drinking wells.
• The pollution detected by the EPA and alleged to be linked to fracking was found in deep-water "monitoring wells"—not the shallower drinking wells. It's far from certain that pollution in these deeper wells caused the pollution in drinking wells. The deep-water wells that EPA drilled are located near a natural gas reservoir. Encana Corp., which owns more than 100 wells around Pavillion, says it didn't "put the natural gas at the bottom of the EPA's deep monitoring wells. Nature did."
• To the extent that drilling chemicals have been detected in monitoring wells, the EPA admits this may result from "legacy pits," which are old wells that were drilled many years before fracking was employed. The EPA also concedes that the inferior design of Pavillion's old wells allows seepage into the water supply. Safer well construction of the kind normally practiced today might have prevented any contaminants from leaking into the water supply.
• The fracking in Pavillion takes place in unusually shallow wells of fewer than 1,000 to 1,500 feet deep. Most fracking today occurs 10,000 feet deep or more, far below drinking water wells, which are normally less than 500 feet. Even the EPA report acknowledges that Pavillion's drilling conditions are far different from other areas of the country, such as the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania. This calls into question the relevance of the Wyoming finding to newer and more sophisticated fracking operations in more than 20 states.
The safety of America's drinking water needs to be protected, as the fracking industry itself well knows. Nothing would shut down drilling faster, and destroy billions of dollars of investment, than media interviews with mothers afraid to let their kids brush their teeth with polluted water. So the EPA study needs to be carefully reviewed.
But the EPA's credibility is also open to review. The agency is dominated by anticarbon true believers, and the Obama Administration has waged a campaign to raise the price and limit the production of fossil fuels.
Natural gas carries a smaller carbon footprint than coal or oil, and greens once endorsed it as an alternative to coal and nuclear power. But as the shale gas revolution has advanced, greens are worried that plentiful natural gas will price wind and solar even further out of the market. This could mean many more of the White House's subsidized investments will go belly up like Solyndra.
The other big issue is regulatory control. Hydraulic fracturing isn't regulated by the EPA, and in 2005 Congress reaffirmed that it did not want the EPA to do so under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The states regulate gas drilling, and by and large they have done the job well. Texas and Florida adopted rules last week that followed other states in requiring companies to disclose their fracking chemicals.
But the EPA wants to muscle in, and its Wyoming study will help in that campaign. The agency is already preparing to promulgate new rules regulating fracking next year. North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple says that new EPA rules restricting fracking "would have a huge economic impact on our state's energy development. We believe strongly this should be regulated by the states." Some 3,000 wells in the vast Bakken shale in North Dakota use fracking.
By all means take threats to drinking water seriously. But we also need to be sure that regulators aren't spreading needless fears so they can enhance their own power while pursuing an ideological agenda.