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EPA Report Ties Fracking To Groundwater Contamination in Wyoming. But What Does That Mean For Texas?

A gas well in Arlington
A gas well in Arlington
Photo by Taryn Walker

For folks in Dallas, where the council-appointed gas drilling task force is running to stand still, or in Southlake, the subject of a recent cover story on towns grappling with urban drilling, this EPA report released today tying fracking to groundwater contamination in Wyoming probably doesn't mean much. We get our water from surface sources, not from underground.

But the folks out in surrounding counties who depend on groundwater as a primary source of drinking water should take note. Energy companies have long said there isn't a single proven instance where the fracking process itself -- the injection of millions of gallons of water laced with industrial chemicals at astronomical pressures, fracturing shale formations and releasing methane -- has resulted in groundwater contamination. Sure, surface spills and containment pits have been known to leak fracking fluid and the backwash of brine that occurs when a well is drilled, contaminating groundwater. But the process itself is safe, they assure us.

That isn't technically true, as a New York Times article pointed out, unearthing a shelved EPA study documenting that very thing in West Virginia. But quick settlements between energy company and aggrieved water-well owners -- accompanied by nondisclosure agreements -- have ensured instances of contamination remain secret.

Either way, none of this has stopped the industry from repeating the line like a mantra.

And there's been a host of studies that downplay the risk. It's hard to argue with the logic: How could fracking fluid injected deep underground migrate into comparatively shallow drinking water wells? As a University of Texas researcher studying this very thing pointed out in that aforementioned cover story, it is possible. All it takes is one hydraulic fracture, an old oil or gas well with a busted casing or a bad cement job allowing the frack fluid to penetrate, migrate its way up into shallower groundwater formations and, bingo, contamination. That's what happened in West Virginia.

Until now, anyway, there hasn't been the sort of exhaustive study that identified widespread contamination the way this study does. What the EPA's preliminary report accomplishes is the shattering of that oft-repeated energy company mantra. It can't happen. But in Pavillion, Wyoming, on the Wind River formation, it did.

Predictably, the industry and the legislators in its pocket are pouncing. A spokesman for Encana, the company that contaminated the water, told the AP that the EPA's sampling process could have been compromised. But the EPA used hydrocarbon-free lubricant during drilling and eliminated all other materials that could have contributed the compounds they detected.

What they did find, through sampling of 35 domestic wells, two municipal wells and two deep observation wells, was benzene -- a known carcinogen -- and a number of other compounds commonly used in fracking. In shallow monitoring wells, benzene was found in concentrations 30 times higher than the EPA's maximum concentration levels, suggesting contamination by surface pits. But in one deep observation well, levels of benzene were 49 times safe drinking levels.

It's unlikely that the benzene or any of the other compounds found came from gas condensate, which may contain them in naturally occurring levels. This gas is dry.

In the deep observation wells, researchers also identified an uncharacteristically high pH, which was caused by potassium chloride and potassium hydroxide, used in fracking fluid as solvents, among other things.

How'd it get there? Any number of ways, though the report singles out casing that doesn't extend below the deepest domestic wells, and fracture zones without enough vertical separation between them and the water these folks drink -- which, by the way, is now being provided to them, courtesy of Encana.

So, what does this mean for the people of the Barnett Shale? Hard to tell. These are different kinds of rock formations that, undoubtedly, behave differently when fractured. But if it tells us anything, it's that the assurances of the industry are no longer good enough. Everyone -- landowners and municipalities alike -- took the money they handed out in the heady days when natural gas prices were high, and didn't ask too many questions. Or they didn't until it was too late.

Now, in the heat of a headlong rush to develop our vast natural gas reserves -- already well underway here in North Texas -- and to secure our energy independence, or whatever the boiler plate is these days, it might be prudent to stop and see what the EPA has to say when it releases that big study on fracking in the Barnett and elsewhere (initial results expected by the end of 2012). Because, as they point out in this study, you can't get into an aquifer and filter out the contaminants. Once you despoil it, that source of water is gone, for you and maybe even for generations to come.


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