The U.S. EPA has just released test results indicating that at least one common fracking chemical has contaminated drinking water in the town of Pavillion, Wyoming. The finding is significant because the natural gas industry has long denied any systematic connection between its fracking operations and harm to water supplies, despite a growing body of anecdotal evidence. Denial has traditionally been a pretty easy call for the industry, given its exemption from chemical disclosure rules that would have definitively revealed (or disproved) any such link years ago. However, the new investigation may be only a taste of things to come, as the EPA gears up for closer scrutiny of fracking chemicals and their impacts.
Fracking and Timing
While it may be pure coincidence, the timing of EPA’s release appears to be a PR-savvy move designed to take some air out of the gas industry’s sails. On November 1, EPA issued an update on the data-gathering phase of its Hydraulic Fracturing Study report, which will attempt to get a handle on the impacts and potential risks of fracking nationwide (fracking is a drilling method that involves pumping a chemical brine underground). The final report won’t be out until 2014 but industry representatives quickly and predictably responded by accusing EPA’s methodology of being secretive and unreliable. These arguments just as quickly lost some punch just a few days later, when EPA released the results of the Pavillion investigation. That helped to focus positive attention on the agency’s credibility, through its meticulous testing and documentation of its findings.
Fracking Pollution in Pavillion, Wyoming
As reported by Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica, Pavillion is situated in a region of Wyoming that has seen hundreds of new gas wells drilled in the past 15 years, with 200 in the Pavillion area alone. Abrahm notes that residents started alleging a connection between the drilling and water contamination in their wells about ten years ago. Their complaints were partly borne out by EPA’s results, which revealed “alarming” levels of contamination in a Pavillion aquifer, including “high levels of cancer-causing compounds and at least one chemical commonly used in hydraulic fracturing.” However, the EPA report deals carefully with documenting the chemicals, without venturing any conclusions regarding the possible source of those chemicals.
Fracking and Earthquakes
Aside from direct water contamination, fracking can also pose a risk to water supplies through its potential for infrastructure damage. Namely, fracking has recently been linked to earthquakes, and earthquakes are not good for reservoirs, dams, aqueducts, treatment plants and water mains. Geologists are also beginning to discover that deep-ground disruptions can have far ranging and unpredictable consequences on the surface. In what could be a portent of things to come, a small lake in Pennsylvania was recently drained because of damage to its dam caused by an underground coal mine located at what would ordinarily be considered a safe distance away.
Fracking and Tar Sands
As an aside, according to Abrahm the Pavillion gas wells at the center of the residents’ problems are currently owned by the Canadian company EnCana, which continues to deny responsibility. Their experience with EnCana certainly doesn’t bode well for residents of Nebraska and other midwestern states who may have to deal with the impacts of another Canadian energy project, TransCanada’s notorious Keystone XL Pipeline. However, that’s a moot point for now, as the State Department put a hold on the Keystone project last week, largely in response to the environmental concerns of Nebraskans.
Fracking and People
A while back, an op-ed writer for the New York Times argued that the benefits of fracking for U.S. energy policy far outweigh the risks, and the writer basically advised local residents to suck it up. That’s actually been the course of action until now, when fracking mainly took place in isolated and relatively underpopulated rural areas. Combined with the industry’s disclosure exemptions, that made it difficult if not impossible to assemble an accurate picture of the impact of fracking on a national scale. The situation is quite different now that a gas-rich formation of shale called the Marcellus has been discovered in and around the Appalachian region. EnCan may have temporarily patched Pavillion’s problems by hauling in a few cisterns for drinking water, but you’re talking about an awful lot of cisterns should problems arise in parts of the Marcellus, which for starters includes Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York.