By Alan Kovski
The Environmental Protection Agency said June 20 it will let Wyoming take the lead on investigating a possible case of groundwater contamination from natural gas drilling involving hydraulic fracturing near the town of Pavillion.
EPA said it stood behind its work and data, but it also said it would not finalize its study or seek peer review of its draft study, nor would it rely upon the conclusions in the draft report. Instead, the agency will provide support to Wyoming in a continuation of the investigation.
Sens. David Vitter (R-La.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) welcomed the agency's decision as an abandonment of what they described as a politicized investigation spurred by an interest in regulating hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. EPA's investigation had lacked scientific credibility, they said.
Wyoming will conclude the investigation and release a final report by Sept. 30, 2014, EPA said.
“It is in everyone's best interest--particularly the citizens who live outside of Pavillion--that Wyoming and the EPA reach an unbiased, scientifically supportable conclusion,” Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R) said in a statement released with the EPA announcement.
The primary criticism of EPA in both its Pavillion investigation and other actions on hydraulic fracturing is that state officials have far greater expertise on the subject, given their decades of regulating oil and gas operations.
In reaction to EPA's change of course on Pavillion, Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) issued a statement saying he was glad to see that the agency “conceded that state-level expertise and capabilities are most appropriate for overseeing safe and responsible energy production.”
The EPA draft report on Pavillion, released in December 2011, included a tentative conclusion that pollutants found in the aquifer used for Pavillion drinking water likely resulted from hydraulic fracturing to obtain gas from deeper geologic layers. The study came in for much criticism.
The EPA draft was followed by U.S. Geological Survey reports that released some data which complicated the picture, seeming to overlap the data EPA had released but not entirely. USGS avoided trying to draw conclusions about the sources of the contaminants it listed (43 ER 2484, 9/28/12).
Fracturing, a common practice for stimulation of oil and gas wells, involves forcing water, sand, and chemical additives into the ground under pressure to create fractures through which hydrocarbons can flow. Many critics of the practice had suggested the Pavillion case might become the first confirmed case of fracking causing water contamination.
EPA said it will continue to work on a research program on the risks posed by hydraulic fracturing to drinking water. The agency will release a draft report on that study in late 2014. EPA also is working on a guidance for fracturing when diesel fuels are involved, a regulatory effort that is intended to be concluded by the end of 2013.
For the oil and gas industry, the subject has been an embarrassing one. The industry estimates it has fracked more than 1.2 million wells over the decades without a single confirmed contamination case, yet concerns have spread.
Encana Corp. gas wells fell under suspicion as pollution sources because of their proximity to EPA's investigation site. In his June 20 statement, Mead said Encana and EPA worked with him in charting the new course for the investigation.
Encana said it will give $1.5 million to the Wyoming Natural Resource Foundation to be used for further investigation and other purposes.
The announcement from EPA on the Pavillion, Wyo., study of possible groundwater contamination is available at http://1.usa.gov/11Qztn7.