Ever since Gasland came out and hydraulic fracturing became a hot topic that everyone, even people with no knowledge of the field, had an opinion about, the federal government has sought to use the issue for political gain. When people in Pavillion, Wyoming, complained about their drinking water and claimed that hydraulic fracturing, or fracing, had contaminated their wells, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) went rushing out to do tests.
The EPA constructed two monitoring wells and tested water samples from these wells. It issued a draft report in December 2011, concluding that it was “likely” that fracing contributed to water contamination, and claimed that they found elements of methane, ethane, diesel components, and phenol in their samples. Oil and gas industry experts at the American Petroleum Institute (API) criticized the study at the time for its unscientific data and flawed research methodology. One of API’s directors, Erik Milito, noted that the lack of properly conducted research also casts doubt on the EPA’s upcoming national study.
Another federal government agency, the US Geological Survey (USGS), also tested in the area and came to different results, described in two public releases, the “Sampling and Analysis Plan for the Characterization of Groundwater Quality in Two Monitoring Wells near Pavillion, Wyoming” and the other entitled “Groundwater-Quality and Quality-Control Data for Two Monitoring Wells near Pavillion, Wyoming, April and May 2012”.
USGS found no evidence of some of the chemicals claimed in the EPA study, and others were found to be present at significantly lower levels than reported by the EPA. USGS worked in cooperation with the State of Wyoming, the EPA, and Wyoming’s native tribes to come up with its scientific findings, but the agency did not analyze the findings. USGS also only sampled from one of the two EPA wells, indicating that the other well could not provide a sample of representative water conditions, raising further concerns about how the EPA constructed the test wells in the first place. Wyoming’s Governor Matt Mead praised the USGS’s process over that used by the EPA, because the USGS allowed state experts to collaborate and have a say in the methodology. (Imagine that! Getting input from local experts who know the area! What a concept.)
The owner of the natural gas wells in the Pavillion area, Encana Oil and Gas, also questions the EPA’s results and asserts that the monitoring wells were poorly and improperly constructed. Problems with the EPA’s methods include possible cross-contamination of groundwater during the EPA’s drilling, and misrepresentation of monitoring well depths versus the depth of average drinking water sources. Encana indicated that contaminants that were actually found in the water samples by EPA are naturally occurring in the area, and are not the result of hydraulic fracturing. Mr. Milito of API agreed with this assertion, saying, “[W]hile EPA has yet to acknowledge this, hydrocarbons are naturally occurring and have historically been detected in groundwater in the Pavillion area. It is not unexpected to find hydrocarbons in groundwater in a hydrocarbon-bearing formation.” He was also worried that if the EPA thinks the Pavillion tests were scientifically sound and useful, they will use continue to use shoddy construction and inexpert techniques in other testing areas. He urged the federal government not to make regulations based on such unscientific data.
There’s a second issue here besides the problems with the EPA’s methodology. I think there is a fair basis for suggesting that EPA may have actually doctored the water samples to make fracing look bad. It won’t be the first time that a bureaucrat has changed the facts to advance their ideology. After all, isn’t that what our President does all the time?
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