New questions raised about ‘fracking’ and drinking water

Source: International Herald Tribune, August 5, 2011
Posted on:

Critics of drilling method find it hard to get access to energy firms records.

For decades, oil and gas industry executives as well as regulators have maintained that a drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that is used for most natural gas wells has never contaminated underground drinking water.

The claim is based in part on a simple fact: fracking, in which water and toxic chemicals are injected at high pressure into the ground to break up rocks and release the gas trapped there, occurs thousands of feet below drinking-water aquifers. Because of that distance, the drilling chemicals pose no risk, industry executives have argued.

There have been over a million wells hydraulically fractured in the history of the industry, and there is not one, not one, reported case of a freshwater aquifer having ever been contaminated from hydraulic fracturing. Not one, Rex W. Tillerson, the chief executive of Exxon Mobil, said last year at a Congressional hearing on drilling in Washington.

It is a refrain that not only drilling proponents, but also lawmakers and even past and present directors of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have repeated often.

But there is in fact a documented case, and the E.P.A. report that discussed it suggests there may be more. Researchers, however, were unable to investigate many suspected cases because their details were sealed from the public when energy companies settled lawsuits with landowners.

Current and former E.P.A. officials say this practice continues to prevent them from fully assessing the risks of certain types of gas drilling.

I still dont understand why industry should be allowed to hide problems when public safety is at stake, said Carla Greathouse, the author of the E.P.A. report that documents a case of drinking water contamination from fracking. If its so safe, let the public review all the cases.

Eric Wohlschlegel, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, dismissed the assertion that sealed settlements had hidden problems with gas drilling. He added that countless academic, federal and state investigators conducted research on groundwater contamination issues, and have found that drinking water contamination from fracking is highly improbable.

Settlements are sealed for a variety of reasons, are common in litigation, and are done at the request of both landowners and operators, Mr. Wohlschlegel said.

Still, the documented E.P.A. case, which has gone largely unnoticed for decades, includes evidence that many industry representatives were aware of it and also fought the agencys attempts to include other cases in the final study.

The report is not recent it was published in 1987, and the contamination was discovered in 1984. Drilling technology and safeguards in well design have improved significantly since then. Nevertheless, the report does contradict what has emerged as a kind of mantra in the industry and in the government.

The report concluded that hydraulic fracturing fluids or gel used by the Kaiser Exploration & Mining Co. contaminated a well roughly 600 feet, or 180 meters, away on the property of James Parsons in Jackson County, West Virginia.

When fracturing the Kaiser gas well on Mr. James Parsons property, fractures were created allowing migration of fracture fluid from the gas well to Mr. Parsons water well, according to the agencys summary of the case. This fracture fluid, along with natural gas was present in Mr. Parsons water, rendering it unusable.

Asked about the cause of the incident, Mr. Wohlschlegel said that the important factor was that the driller and the regulator had not known about the nearby aquifer. But in comments submitted to the E.P.A. at the time about the report, the petroleum institute acknowledged that this was indeed a case of drinking water contamination from fracking.

The damage here, the institute wrote, referring to Mr. Parsons contaminated water well, results from an accident or malfunction of the fracturing process.

Mr. Wohlschlegel cautioned, however, that the comments provided at the time by the institute were not based on its own research and therefore it could not be certain that other factors did not play a role.

In their report, E.P.A. officials also wrote that Mr. Parsons case was highlighted as an illustrative example of the hazards created by this type of drilling, and that legal settlements and nondisclosure agreements prevented access to scientific documentation of other incidents.

This is typical practice, for instance, in Texas, the report stated. In some cases, the records of well-publicized damage incidents are almost entirely unavailable for review.

Bipartisan legislation before the U.S. Congress would require judges to consider public health and safety before sealing court records or approving settlement agreements.

Dan Derkics, a 17-year veteran of the environmental agency who oversaw research for the report, said that hundreds of other cases of drinking water contamination were found, many of which look from preliminary investigations to have been caused by hydraulic fracturing like the one from West Virginia. But they were unable to learn more about them.

I can assure you that the Jackson County case was not unique, said Mr. Derkics, who retired from the agency in 1994. That is why the drinking water concerns are real.

The New York Times was made aware of the 1987 E.P.A. report and some of its supporting research materials by Ms. Greathouse, the studys lead author. Other records pertaining to the well were obtained from state archives or from the agencys library.

Some industry executives criticized the research behind the report at the time. Their comments were among dozens submitted by the industry to the agency.

It is clear from reading the 228 alleged damage cases that E.P.A.s contractor was careless in its investigation and presentation of this material, a letter from the American Petroleum Institute said.

The organization faulted a draft of the report as failing to include enough comment from state regulators and energy companies, and as including cases that were poorly documented or outside the scope of the project. In remarks to the agency at the time, the petroleum institute also emphasized that safeguards in West Virginia had improved because of the incident, which the organization referred to as an aberration and said was potentially caused by a malfunction.

As described in the detail write-up, this is not a normal result of fracturing, as it ruins the productive capability of the wells, the institute said about the case.

A spokesman for Exxon Mobil, Alan T. Jeffers, was asked about Mr. Tillersons comments to Congress in light of the documents relating to the West Virginia case. He said that Mr. Tillerson, whose company is the largest producer of natural gas in the United States, was only echoing what various state and federal regulators had said.

On the issue of sealed settlements, Mr. Jeffers said that investigators and regulators could use subpoenas if they really wanted access to the information.

Improvements in fracking have led to a boom in natural gas drilling, enabling energy companies to tap huge reserves of gas in previously inaccessible shale formations deep underground.

Most drilling experts indeed have said that contamination of drinking water with fracking liquids is highly improbable. Even critics of fracking tend to agree that if wells are designed properly, drilling fluids should not affect underground drinking water. Industry executives also emphasize that all forms of drilling involve some degree of risk. The question, they say, is what represents an acceptable level. Once chemicals contaminate underground drinking-water sources, they are very difficult to remove, according to U.S. government and industry studies. One E.P.A. official involved with a current study being conducted by the agency on the risks of fracking on drinking water said the agency encountered continuing challenges to get access to current cases because of legal settlements.

Our hands are tied, said the official, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

Brendan Gilfillan, a spokesman for the agency, said it had indeed encountered these barriers but that there were still enough alternate cases to study.

A 2004 study by the agency concluded that hydraulic fracturing of one kind of natural gas well coal-bed methane wells posed little or no threat to underground drinking water supplies. The study was later criticized by some within the agency as being unscientific and unduly influenced by industry.

Asked about the 1987 E.P.A. report and the West Virginia well, Mr. Gilfillan said the agency was reviewing them closely.

Instances of gas bubbling from fracked sites into nearby water wells have been extensively documented. The industry has also acknowledged that fracking liquids can end up in aquifers because of failures in the casing of wells, spills that occur above ground or through other factors. The drilling industry emphasizes, however, that no such cases exist in which the fracking process itself caused drilling liquids to contaminate drinking water.

Both types of contamination can render the water unusable. But contamination from fracking fluids is widely considered more worrisome because the fluids can contain carcinogens like benzene.

The risk of abandoned wells serving as conduits for contamination is one that the E.P.A. is currently researching as part of its national study on fracking. Many states lack complete records with the number or location of these abandoned wells and they lack the resources to ensure that abandoned and active wells are inspected regularly.

A 1999 report by the U.S. Department of Energy said there were about 2.5 million abandoned oil and natural gas wells in the United States at the time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *