EPA Ties Fracking, Pollution
Wall Street Journal
9 December 2011
By Deborah Solomon and Russel Gold
Chemicals found in a Wyoming town's drinking water likely are
associated with hydraulic fracturing, the Environmental Protection
Agency said Thursday, raising the stakes in a debate over a
drilling technique that has created a boom in natural-gas
The agency's draft findings are among the first by the government
to link the technique, dubbed "fracking," with groundwater
contamination. The method—injecting large volumes of water, sand
and chemicals to dislodge natural gas or oil—has been criticized
by environmentalists for its potential to harm water supplies,
which the industry disputes.
The EPA findings spooked investors in Encana Corp., which drilled
the Wyoming wells, sending the Canadian company's shares down more
than 6% in New York Stock Exchange trading. The value of some
other energy companies heavily invested in fracking also fell,
including Chesapeake Energy Corp., which dropped 5.1%.
The findings, which will be peer-reviewed by scientists before
being made final, could expose Encana to fines and litigation. The
company has been providing fresh water to 21 homes in the area
since August 2010, when it began meeting with the EPA and state
regulators to find a long-term alternative to well water for the
EPA spokeswoman Betsaida Alcantara said the agency is discussing
steps with Encana to fix the problems. "Our highest priority is to
ensure a long-term source of clean drinking water," she said.
Doug Hock, an Encana spokesman, said the company—the
second-largest natural-gas producer in North America after Exxon
Mobil Corp.—wasn't aware of any pending enforcement action by the
EPA but added "they always have that option."
Mr. Hock called the EPA's findings "a probability rather than a
definitive conclusion. For an agency that prides itself on
science, that's surprising." He added that Encana has tested the
wells at issue and "the results show there has been no issue with
wells releasing natural gas or other contaminants into the
Environmental groups said the finding confirms that fracking poses
environmental risk and should be subject to strict rules or banned
outright. Supporters of natural-gas production said the report was
narrowly focused and shouldn't be used to draw broad conclusions
about fracking's impact.
The EPA itself said the Wyoming field differs from most fracking
sites because the fracking "is taking place in and below the
drinking water aquifer and in close proximity to drinking water
wells"—unlike most sites where fracking is done far below the
The EPA conducted a multiyear study in response to concerns voiced
in 2008 by residents in Pavillion, Wyo., about the smell and
quality of their water.
The agency, after drilling its own wells in Pavillion and sampling
water, said it detected benzene, a carcinogen, that exceeded safe
drinking-water standards, as well as methane—the primary component
of natural gas—and synthetic chemicals such as glycols and
alcohols "consistent with gas production and hydraulic fracturing
The EPA said that in one well it drilled it measured 246
micrograms of benzene per liter, far above the maximum permitted
level of five micrograms per liter. The EPA said it looked at
other explanations for the contaminants but concluded fracking was
"likely" to blame.
Critics of the report didn't dispute that the findings raised some
concern but said the EPA was a long way from proving a causal
link. Kevin Book, an energy policy analyst at Clearview Energy
Partners LLC, described the findings as "circumstantial" and said
some of the evidence "may be incomplete or inconclusive."
The EPA has responded to several instances of potential fracking
contamination, including in Texas and Pennsylvania. In Texas, the
EPA ordered a company, Range Resources, to provide fresh drinking
water to residents who said their water was contaminated. The case
is the subject of a lawsuit.
The agency ordered Pennsylvania to tighten its standards related
to removal of drilling wastewater and recently said it would
consider nationwide standards for disposal of such water.
The EPA, which has been looking more intently into fracking under
the Obama administration as the practice has exploded, is
conducting a broad study to gauge the possible effects on drinking
water, with preliminary results expected in 2013.
The ability to extract gas and oil using fracking has triggered a
modern-day gold rush, with states including Pennsylvania and
Colorado benefiting from new jobs and tax revenue.
Petroleum engineers and other industry experts cautioned against
extrapolating the EPA's Wyoming results to other parts of the
country, saying the wells at issue and the region's geology were
atypical of areas that have undergone fracking.
The gas-bearing rock being fractured in Wyoming was only about
1,220 feet deep. And some of the water wells extended down 800
feet. By comparison, in Texas and Pennsylvania most of the rocks
being fracked are several thousand feet deeper than water wells.
And, unlike gas-rich geologic formations such as the Marcellus in
Pennsylvania and Barnett in Texas, the Wyoming field doesn't have
a rock barrier that sits atop the gas reservoir.
"It is not something we can say, 'If it's happening here, it can
happen anywhere,' " said Ian Duncan, a research scientist at the
Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas. "There is
such a large difference in the amount of rock between where the
fracking is going on and where the water is."
The report cited problems with how the wells were constructed,
including intervals where the wells had no cement casing or
weakened cement. EPA officials said this could be related to the
age of the wells, some of which date to the 1950s, and varying
state regulations over the years.
Environmental groups have cited the potential for poor well
construction as a risk and said the report shows the need for
tighter rules. "Even if you just set aside the fracking issue, the
EPA found a lot of problems. These wells were not constructed
properly, they weren't cemented properly," said Amy Mall of the
Natural Resources Defense Council.
The EPA announcement irked Wyoming authorities. Gov. Matt Mead
issued a statement saying the draft analysis "is scientifically
questionable and more testing is needed."
Tom Doll, the state's oil and gas supervisor, said "more sampling
is needed to rule out surface contamination or the process of
building these test wells as the source of the concerning
In 2004, Colorado officials found that Encana failed to
sufficiently cement a well and caused gas to seep into a creek.
They fined the company $371,200. Mr. Hock, the Encana spokesman,
said the faulty cement job was "regrettable" but that the company
hasn't had a similar problem since.
—Ryan Tracy, Tom Fowler and Daniel Gilbert contributed to this
Write to Deborah Solomon at email@example.com and Russell
Gold at firstname.lastname@example.org