Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Putting The EPA Wyoming Report Under The Microscope: What's Controversial & What Is Not?

Five days after the release of the EPA Pavillion, Wyoming preliminary findings, the strongest critique and the strongest supporting analysis would be Encana's response and a  must-read piece by Scott Johnson, published at http://arstechnica.com/science/news/2011/12/how-the-epa-linked-fracking-to-contaminated-well-water.   The Encana criticism of EPA can be found here: http://encana.com/news/newsreleases/2011/1212-why-encana-refutes-epa-pavillion-report.html.

To guide us through the EPA documents, it is helpful to divide the findings into two categories: contested/controversial findings and uncontested/not controversial.  These three findings do not appear controversial:

1. EPA states that the Pavillion drilling and geology is a unique, unusual combination that features shallow fracking in a sandstone formation, without a geological barrier or cap rock between groundwater and the fracking zones.  This description certainly does not describe drilling and the geology in Pennsylvania and Louisiana, to name just two big shale plays, where fracking is taking place typically 5,000 feet or even deeper, with a major cap rock barrier between the fracking zones and groundwater;

2. Some contamination of shallow groundwater has resulted from at least some of the 33 pits in the area.  Encana states it has self-reported to regulators some pits that it inherited and has begun remediation to correct localized contamination; and

3. At least some of the gas wells drilled in the area had casing and cementing defects, with 2 apparently having no cement at all.  I have not seen any serious contest so far to the description of the drilling practices that appear in the EPA report and that are disturbing.  Encana so far has not rebutted them to my knowledge.  Perhaps more information will be provided that changes this picture.

Moving to the controversy, Encana rejects that the EPA has established a link between hydraulic fracturing and various forms of chemical and other contamination found in the aquifer by the two test wells that EPA drilled. Again see the Encana statement and then the Scott Johnson piece in Arstechnica.com for competing views on this crucial point.  This contested issue will be the focal point of the independent scientific review and public comment.

I continue to give EPA high grades for conducting a careful investigation that has taken 3 years so far. It has done the right thing in releasing to the world its preliminary findings and making it clear that they are preliminary, providing for independent scientific review, and for public comment.  The alternative of proceeding in secret to a final conclusion would have been a disaster, no matter what EPA said.

The reactions to the EPA from those who think the industry can do nothing right or nothing wrong have been predictable.   Josh Fox declares that the EPA's Wyoming findings support a global ban on fracking. EPA itself disagrees, pointing to unique circumstances and operational errors in pits and gas well drilling. Senator Inhofe and some others declare the EPA report "offensive" and political. Inhofe and those like-minded are wrong too. Most of the gas industry withholds comment, apparently treating the findings as both preliminary and serious, deserving of independent science review and thoughtful comment within the 45 days provided.  

Looking at just the non-controversial findings in the EPA document provides important lessons.  I am currently hopeful that this process will make gas drilling safer and reduce risks further.

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