Volume 8, Number 37 - December 4, 2008
brought to you online by Pinedale Online
Story questions hydraulic fracturing safety
Energy development continues to draw regional attention to Sublette County. This time the county’s gas development was the focus of a Nov. 17 article in the Denver Post that questioned the safety of hydraulic fracturing.
The article written by ProPublica reporter Abrahm Lustgarten is a comprehensive indictment of the gas industry’s practice of “fracing.” Fracing is the widely used practice of pumping high-pressured liquids into a gas well to loosen methanecontaining materials and free natural gas.
The vast majority of this country’s gas wells would be unproductive without the practice. Virtually all the wells in Sublette County are treated using the process. Fracing is responsible for producing trillions of cubic feet of natural gas that would otherwise be inaccessible.
Lustgarten – who has been published in Salon, Esquire, the Washington Post and The New York Times after receiving a master’s degree from Columbia University – has authored six highly detailed articles about gas drilling in New York for ProPublica.
ProPublica is a New York based, non-profit newsroom “that produces investigative journalism in the public interest,” according to its Web site. It also states, “Our work focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with ‘moral force.’”
Both the 1,704-word Denver Post version of Lustgarten’s article and the unedited 4,745-word version open with a story about a highly polluted Sublette County water well. Lustgarten describes a hydrologists pulling up “a load of brown, oily water with a foul smell.”
Later he writes that 88 of 220 tested Sublette County wells were contaminated.
But in an email response to questions from the Sublette Examiner, gas company representatives for Shell, Questar, and Ultra say less than 10 wells were “deemed contaminated over the minimum clean-up levels…” The representatives go on to say fracturing did not contaminate the wells; instead the contamination was “likely caused by human error through pumping practices, use of pipe dope or naturally occurring hydrocarbons.”
Additionally they said the detected levels were 10 to 100 times less than what is considered contaminated and “the wells with detectable levels fall well below the state standards for drinking water.”
In a written response to the Lustgarten article, Kathleen Sgammma, director of Government Affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States (IPAMS) wrote, “Since fracing was first used in 1948, there has not been a single documented case of contamination of drinking water.”
But in an Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODRN) 2008 study titled “Report on the Investigation of the Natural Gas Invasion of Aquifers in Bainbridge Township of Geauga County, Ohio,” 26 wells were disconnected due to contamination that was linked to fracing.
In the report the ODRN concluded that among other factors, “The decision to proceed with stimulating, or hydro-fracturing, the well without addressing the issue of the minimal cement behind the production casing” caused the contaminations.
Although human error contributed to the contamination, the study demonstrates that fracing can lead to contamination.
Other evidence leads to the same conclusion.
In a well-documented 2001 case, Laura Amos’ drinking well exploded like a geyser during drilling operations near her home in western Colorado.
Five years later, after she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, Amos accepted a settlement from the energy operator EnCana. While it was never proven to be the result of hydraulic fracturing, the incident lifted eyebrows across the west.
Sgamma’s IPAMS letter sharply disagrees with the notion that fracing contaminates groundwater. It cites the fact that the vast majority of frac liquids is benign while only 1 percent contains potentially harmful chemicals.
Countering that claim is the fact that each well uses tens (sometimes hundreds) of thousands of gallons of fluids to fracture treat each well. With thousands of wells in the Upper Green River Valley and thousands more to come, the sheer volume ensures that large quantities of chemicals are being introduced into the earth.
In addition, some of chemicals are listed as “proprietary” making it virtually impossible to disclose the exact chemical components that are being injected.
One of the underlying themes to Lustgarten’s article lies in a groundbreaking 2004 study by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The study looked at the possibility of fracture treatment contaminates migrating throughout a well’s stratigraphy (rock layers) from deep gasbearing levels to shallow aquifers.
The study’s summery stated: “In its review of incidents of drinking water well contamination believed to be associated with hydraulic fracturing, the EPA found no confirmed cases that are linked to fracturing fluid injection into CBM (Coalbed Methane) wells or subsequent underground movement of fracturing fluids.”
That 2004 study is often referenced, explicitly or implicitly, by energy operators such as in the IPAMS letter where Sgamma writes, “Westerners should not take to heart alarmists claims that fracing is dangerous. Studies have shown that fracing is safe and effective.”
But while the EPA study concluded that CBM fracing did not show underground movement of fracturing fluids, the study did not specifically identify fracturing fluid behavior in wells on the Jonah, Mesa or Anticline nor areas with similar stratigraphy.
Regardless, the study contributed to the 2005 Energy Policy Act that eliminated the EPA’s regulatory oversight of hydraulic fracturing.
Because the EPA was reduced to an advisory role, Lustgarten suggests a regulatory gap exists.
Sgamma sees it differently. In her letter she says, “Like all procedures surrounding the development of energy, fracing is already regulated by literally hundreds of local, state and federal laws.”
But the aforementioned incidents among others have prompted some legislators to call for stronger regulation according to Lustgarten.
With thousands of wells being drilled throughout the country, the energy industry characterizes the few but well publicized instances of contamination as anecdotal.
“Blaming such incidents on fracing and mischaracterizing the cases as hazardous to public health is an unfair attempt to frighten the public into thinking a well-regulated process is somehow dangerous,” Kathleen Sgamma’s letter read.
In a defense of his writer’s story, Pro-Publica editor-in-chief Paul Steiger wrote: “The story accurately reports a rising concern among professional scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency – the federal department charged with protecting our environment. It also reports on a lengthy, government investigation that concluded in one case that contamination of water was directly associated with hydraulic fracturing. So the suggestion that this issue is the result of ill-informed fear mongering is simply wrong.”
Politics in charge
Eventually the debate about hydraulic fracturing boils down to political views.
One side argues that hindering domestic fuel production weakens our quest for energy independence and contributes to higher fuel costs.
The other says under-regulated energy development causes potentially catastrophic and permanent damage to natural resources such as drinking water.
If either side is wrong, the consequences could be dramatic.
But for now, those decisions are in the hands of people who live a long way away.
To find the full text of the Lustgarten story go to: http://www.propublica.org/topic/energy-environment/ and scroll down to the story titled “Buried Secrets: Is Natural Gas Drilling Endangering U.S. Water Supplies.”
To find the full text of Sgamma’s IPAMS letter go to: http://www.ipams.org/media/press/GuestCommentary_Fracing.pdf.
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