Friday, December 9, 2011

Statement On EPA Wyoming Fracking Investigation Report

The EPA issued yesterday its draft findings of its Pavilion, Wyoming Ground Water Investigation for Public Comment and Independent Scientific Review.  Its contents are disturbing and demand attention from all regulators and all those charged with managing drilling companies. The mess in Pavillion, Wyoming is a screeching, disturbing event for regulators and the gas industry.

My preliminary review of the 121 pages of draft findings is that EPA has done a careful, methodical investigation that has produced strong, probably compelling evidence that leaks from surface pits, gas well design and operation failures, and hydraulic fracturing at what appear to be depths less than 1,300 feet below the surface have caused chemical and methane pollution of groundwater in Pavillion, Wyoming.  For the EPA draft findings and accompanying press release, go to http:

The press release states: "The draft report indicates that ground water in the aquifer contains compounds likely associated with gas production practices, including hydraulic fracturing." For example chloride levels 18 times the expected levels have been found in ground water and other measurements in the draft findings strongly support the preceding sentence.  Encana, a large Canadian headquartered gas business, is the only company identified as being engaged in "gas production practices" in the document.

The report itself says there are 169 production wells which extract gas in the area and that "at least 33 surface pits previously used for the storage/disposal of drilling wastes and produced flowback waters are present in the area" (page xi). Pages 17 to 27 of the findings provide strong evidence that failures in the pits have caused ground water contamination

The report goes on to say that water wells are as deep as 732 feet but: "With the exception of two production wells, surface casings of gas production wells do not extend below the maximum depth of domestic wells in the area of investigation" (page xi).

The EPA's description of the surface casing, cementing, and fracking at depths of less than 1300 feet add up to a set of outrageous practices, if the descriptions are correct, and they appear to be.  They would violate the Pennsylvania drilling rules or just about any set of rules.  Rules must be enforced and followed to do any good. This mess is a strong reminder of that cardinal rule of regulation and good management.

The EPA states that the circumstances in Pavillion appear unique to the area.  I would certainly hope so.

Pages 27 to 29 of the draft findings provide strong evidence of gas drilling causing gas migration and pollution of ground water.

Pages 29 to 32 have strong evidence that  poor casing and cementing as well as hydraulic fracturing  frequently at depths of less than 2,000 feet and at least once at 1222 feet caused ground water pollution. Leaving aside the issues of casing and cementing for a moment, Marcellus Shale fracking in Pennsylvania occurs at depths between 5,000 to 8,000 feet below the surface.

Here are the key conclusions at page 33: 

1. "Detection of high concentrations of benzene, xylenes, gasoline range organics, diesel range organics, and total purgeable hydrocarbons in ground water samples from shallow monitoring wells near pits indicates that pits are a source of shallow ground water contamination in the area of investigation."  This finding again highlights the risks associated with pits that store frackwater and the operational challenges of pits, a practice that is declining in Pennsylvania but not yet totally eliminated.

2. "Detection of contaminants in ground water from deep sources of contamination (production wells, hydraulic fracturing) was considerably more complex than detection of contaminants from pits necessitating a multiple lines of reasoning approach common to complex scientific investigations...While each individual data set or observation represents an important line of reasoning, taken as a whole, consistent data sets and observations provide compelling evidence to support an explanation of data.  Using this approach, the explanation best fitting the data for the deep monitoring wells is that constituents associated with hydraulic fracturing have been released into the Wind River drinking water aquifer at depths above the current production zone."

EPA has issued its draft findings for a 45 day public comment period.  The draft findings are not the final word.  Yet, this document should be read by every board member of every gas drilling company operating anywhere in the world, by all the top managers of those companies, and by every regulator charged with environmental protection.

The EPA has provided reasons for humility, a real commitment to strong rules and strong enforcement, and a genuine dedication to excellence in operations and a culture of safety by both companies and regulators.  The opposite may well have happened in Pavillion, Wyoming.


  1. Concerned ScientistDecember 11, 2011 at 5:45 PM

    It's very important to point out how very different this case is than the Marcellus John.

    First, we should probably take a wait and see approach on this. According to what they found in earlier work, few if any of these chemicals were ever found in anyone's water well. These were monitoring wells drilled outside of town - not the wells of homeowners. I just have a feeling that in the end they will backpeddle on some of the worst implications of the study. The aquifer there is naturally hydrocarbon bearing so some of what they found could be naturally occurring. But it all could be as they say and perhaps actions should be taken as if the worst of what they say is true.

    That said, this formation is being fracked at much shallower depths than the Marcellus. The shallowest Marcellus wells to date are probably around 5000 feet and the fresh water doesn't extend down much more than a few hundred feet in most cases. That means there are thousands of feet between the zone being fracked and the fresh water. In the case of Pavillion it sounds like it was a few hundred feet. In NY, Marcellus wells will be shallower but it sounds like they are not going to allow any wells to be drilled where the Marcellus is less than 1000 feet below the fresh water. It is really unlikely that many Marcellus wells will be drilled horizontally where the Marcellus is less than 2000 feet below the fresh water. This is an enormous difference.

    It also sounds like they were not running surface casing over the entire fresh water zone and cementing it all the way back to surface. These are things that are required in NY and PA that would have easily prevented this problem. And the open unlined pits have not been allowed in the east for a long time - decades. WY needs to wake up and get some decent regulations.

    So this is not evidence that the Marcellus activity is currently contaminating groundwater or will contaminate groundwater in the future. It does make a good argument for stricter regulation of the industry in some western states that have been a bit too relaxed.

  2. EPA is behaving professionally. It has done a careful investigation, released preliminary findings for the entire world to examine and to comment, and also to have independent science review. The EPA itself is waiting to make final report so everyone should too. Yet, the preliminary report is troubling. Put aside the water quality findings for a moment and just look at the description of the drilling operations. It is not possible to defend a practice of drilling through an aquifer without proper casing and cementing to insure a barrier for gas and fluids between the gas well and aquifer. But it huge mistakes seemed to have been made in nearly all 169 gas wells. And what about the pits and the findings there? And how do you explain chloride readings 18 times the expected value? Even if the water readings were all normal, the practices here are indefensible if properly presented in the preliminary report. I am really interested in your thoughts on the chloride readings.

  3. I live near Pavillion, and while prior to this study there has been no evidence directly linking fracking to water quality, it was pretty telling that soon after gas companies started fracking people in Pavillion began to get flammable water from their taps. Unfortunately, it looks like Gov. Matt Mead is backing Encana without a thought for the safety and livelihoods of the people who elected him. These findings are really Pavillion's one shot to get the facts out there (it's Wyoming, let's face it, the rest of the country could care less), so here's hoping that, the challenges of inaccuracy in the Star Tribune aside, their findings are airtight.

  4. There seems to be no controversy about the findings that contamination of groundwater resulted from the pits. Encana itself agrees that some pits have leaked and done remediation.

    There seems little controversy about EPA's own statements concerning the unusual, even unique circumstances of this case. Sandstone, no cap rock between groundwater and the hydraulic fracturing.

    The rest of the findings are contested and are preliminary. The key is for the politics to be kept out of this that may come from any and all directions.

    I will be looking carefully at descriptions of the drilling practices done at the gas wells in the final report. Is it correct what EPA has preliminarily stated about how the gas wells were drilled there? If it is correct, whether contamination resulted or not, the drilling designs and practices are not acceptable.