*UPDATE XIII* Six — Actually, Seven — Questions for EPA on Pavillion
Wednesday, February 20th, 2013 | 34 Comments | Tagged in: Brian Oberley, Bruce Hinchey, Energy In Depth, Gov Mead, Hydraulic fracturing, Ken Salazar, Louis Meeks, Pavillion, Region 8, Sandstone, Wind River Indian Reservation
Update XIII (9:17 a.m. ET; Feb. 20, 2013) — Emails obtained from the EPA in a recent FOIA request show that the agency pushed back immediately against the claim that it had linked hydraulic fracturing to water contamination, suggesting that a narrative repeated to this day was actually manufactured by the news media and not reported by EPA.
In one email, EPA’s then-press secretary, Betsaida Alcantara, told Lisa Jackson that the agency was pushing back against the AP’s breaking story on the Pavillion report in December 2011, which ran under the headline: “EPA implicates hydraulic fracturing in groundwater pollution at Wyoming gas field.” Alcantara said the AP’s “headline and lead are unnecessarily inflammatory and irresponsible,” and that the AP would be updating the story “heavily” to emphasize the unconfirmed nature of the findings.
Notably, the headline was changed from “EPA implicates hydraulic fracturing” to “EPA theorizes fracking pollution link.” The original AP story also declared in the opening paragraph that EPA had “implicated fracking” for causing contamination, but the version corrected at EPA’s request was changed to say that fracking “may be to blame.”
The revelation undermines critics of hydraulic fracturing, who frequently claim that EPA’s findings in Pavillion “prove” that the practice contaminates drinking water. The NRDC said EPA’s findings represented “the first official evidence that fracking is a threat to drinking water,” while ProPublica ran a story about EPA’s report under the headline “Feds Link Water Contamination to Fracking for the First Time.”
But if the EPA pushed back so vehemently against that characterization in the press, what does that say about one of opponents’ favorite talking points — namely, that EPA’s findings in Pavillion support their thesis of contamination?
Full email from Alcantara is below, but can also be found here (note: large PDF):
From: Betsaida Alcantara/DC/USEPA/US
To: Richard Windsor/DC/USEPA/US@EPA, Bob Perciasepe/DC/USEPA/US@EPA, Bob Sussman/DC/USEPA/US@EPA, Jim Martin/R8/USEPA/US@EPA, Brendan Gilfillan/DC/USEPA/US@EPA, Seth Oster/DC/USEPA/US@EPA, Diane Thompson/DC/USEPA/US@EPA, Daniel Kanninen/DC/USEPA/US@EPA, Paul Anastas/DC/USEPA/US@EPA
Date: 12/08/2011 01:32 PM
Subject: AP: EPA implicates hydraulic fracturing in groundwater pollution at Wyoming gas field
This is the AP’s short piece out of the gate. We’ve told them that this headline and lead are unnecessarily inflammatory and irresponsible. We’ve convinced them to update the story heavily and also remove the words “implicate”. They are going to point out that these limited findings are not final, will go through peer review and are based on the specific conditions in this field. They are re-writing this story as we speak and will put out an udpated story in about 30 minutes.
EPA implicates hydraulic fracturing in groundwater pollution at Wyoming gas field
By Associated Press, Updated: Thursday, December 8, 1:10 PM
CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the first time has implicated fracking — a controversial method of improving the productivity of oil and gas wells — for causing groundwater pollution.
The finding could have a chilling effect in states trying to determine how to regulate the controversial process.
The practice is called hydraulic fracturing and involves pumping pressurized water, sand and chemicals underground to open fissures and improve the flow of oil or gas.
The EPA announced Thursday that it found compounds likely associated with fracking chemicals in the groundwater beneath a Wyoming community where residents say their well water reeks of chemicals.
Health officials advised them not to drink their water after the EPA found hydrocarbons in their wells.
The EPA announcement has major implications for a vast increase in gas drilling in the U.S. in recent years. Fracking has played a large role in opening up many reserves.
The industry has long contended that fracking is safe, but environmentalists and some residents who live near drilling sites say it has poisoned groundwater.
It’s worth noting, too, that when Alcantara later circulated the updated AP story — which said that there only “may” be a link between hydraulic fracturing and contamination — she prefaced it with “updated AP story. best we could get.” That suggests that even the updated version was not exactly to their liking, and that the agency was very interested in distancing itself from a link to water contamination that opponents have gleefully ascribed to their findings.
Update XII (5:19 p.m. ET; May 21) – A new report further debunks EPA’s previous claims that hydraulic fracturing and natural gas development activities impact groundwater in Pavillion, Wyoming. Performed by S.S. Papadopulos & Associates (SSP&A), the new study found the EPA’s draft report lacking to say the least. The report also comes in the wake of a “report” commissioned by anti-shale groups that claimed EPA’s findings were sound – even though the EPA itself doesn’t even agree with that assessment.
As the International Business Times reports: “The report finds the EPA lacked baseline and background data including naturally occurring methane and other hydrocarbon levels, faulted ‘poor study design,’ found the EPA’s conclusions are based on a total of four samples, and that the EPA study failed to adequately address ‘the original project aims of determining the source of taste and odor complaints in residential wells’.”
Update XI (5:19 p.m. ET; May 1) — An “independent” consultant from Reno, Nevada — hired by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, and Earthworks (among others) to write about Pavillion — has decided, through a priori means, that EPA was actually right about water contamination there. The only problem? Not even the EPA believes that anymore. Otherwise, why would that agency have agreed to suspend the independent review process and complete new sampling?
Interestingly, this same “independent” consultant from Nevada is featured in a ProPublica article today claiming that contaminants in the Marcellus region may soon migrate up through two miles of solid rock and into drinking water sources — all thanks to hydraulic fracturing. The funder of that study? The Park Foundation. The “independent” reviewer? Cornell professor and well-known shale critic Anthony Ingraffea. Amazing how these things come together, isn’t it?
Update X (2:37 p.m. ET; March 8 ) — The Casper Star-Tribune reports that the EPA — following reports that surfaced about its improper testing procedures and failure to follow protocol for its December draft report on water quality in Pavillion — has agreed to “further sampling” of the water wells in the area. In a joint statement, U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, and the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone Tribes said: “The EPA, the State of Wyoming, and the Tribes recognize that further sampling of the deep monitoring wells drilled for the Agency’s groundwater study is important to clarify questions about the initial monitoring results” (emphasis added). Even more evidence that EPA’s draft report — once heralded by opponents of responsible energy production as “proof” that developing natural gas from shale is dangerous — rests on conclusions that are fundamentally flawed.
Update IX (2:45 p.m. ET; Feb. 14) -- The Riverton Ranger brings us an interesting piece from Wyoming, highlighting farmers, ranchers and everyday residents from in and around the Pavillion area who say their water is just fine – but that EPA’s flawed draft study on Pavillion is causing real damage to the town and their businesses. According to one farmer: “My concern is that we are trying to fix a problem that does not exist.” Said another: “The water wells were making gas before there were ever any gas wells, let alone fracking,” Click here for the full story.
Update VIII (12:29 p.m. EST; Jan. 20) — Just days after the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) and Governor Mead sent letters to Administrator Lisa Jackson, the EPA has announced it is extending the public comment period on the Wyoming’s DEQ’s draft report on Pavillion until March 12. Also today, ten Senators, including Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Jeff Sessions (R-AL), John Boozman (R-AR), John Cornyn (R-TX), Tom Coburn (R-OK), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Pat Roberts (R-KS), and Roger Wicker (R-MS), sent a letter to Jackson requesting that EPA consider its investigation a Highly Influential Scientific Assessment (HISA). In otherwords, this case must be held to the highest scientific standards as well as the most rigorous peer review process available. Read the IPAA’s letter and check out the Casper Star Tribune for more on the story.
Update VII (9:05 a.m. EST; Jan. 18) — Wyoming’s governor, Matt Mead, has sent a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson requesting quicker answers to questions from Wyoming’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) about the Pavillion draft report. “I understood the EPA would timely respond to these questions and requests,” Mead writes. “However, the majority of those questions remain outstanding” (the comment period officially ends on January 27th). Mead has also asked that the EPA extend the comment period by 30 days to “provide the public and the peer panel [an] opportunity to review additional information provided by EPA’s response and to consider it in their comments.” Taking these steps will facilitate “an unbiased, scientifically supportable finding open to the public,” according to Mead. E&E News (subs. req’d) also has a story on Mead’s letter.
Update VI (1:05 p.m. EST; Dec. 27) — Another excellent hit in the Casper paper this morning, this one a news article by reporter Jeremy Fugleberg laying out a bunch of new information that futher undermines EPA’s case on Pavillion. According to the piece: “EPA’s own data — including details not mentioned in the draft report — indicates the agency’s conclusions are partially based on improperly analyzed samples from six private drinking-water wells and two EPA-drilled deep monitoring wells in Pavillion.” Click here for the full article.
Update V (11:50 a.m. EST; Dec. 26) — Must-read editorial in the Casper Star-Tribune posted earlier today in which the newspaper cites EPA for “terrible execution” of its draft report on Pavillion, suggesting further that “process and politics have trumped good science.” The paper also highlights EPA’s continued unwillingness to answer even the most basic questions that have been raised about the methodology used in assembling the report — questions first posed by EID earlier this month (see below). Click here to view the Casper editorial.
Update IV (11:27 a.m. EST; Dec. 22) — Earlier this week, Wyoming governor Matthew Mead sent a letter to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson laying out a series of questions regarding the agency’s draft paper on Pavillion. In the letter, the governor stresses the importance of sound science and collaboration with state experts in arriving at a final determination. The governor also asks Administrator Jackson to clearly define what the “peer-review” process will look like; remarkably, EPA has yet to even inform the state what it intends to do on that issue.
In related news, Encana this week pulled together a conference call with the media to detail the myriad technical issues that have eroded confidence in the validity of EPA’s draft finding. On the call David Stewart, Group Lead on Environment, Health and Safety (North Rockies) outlined a litany of errors, discrepancies and oversights with EPA’s study efforts. Among the highlights:
- EPA has found no indication of oil and gas impacts in residential water wells in Pavilion consistent with all tests conducted over 50 years
- EPA finding of high PH is attributed to Potassium Hydroxide. Encana states that chemical, used in extremely sparse quantities has a PH between 6.5 and 7.0 which is near neutral. However, materials used in developing EPA’s monitoring wells, like dense soda ash, have a much more pronounced PH value and more closely matches EPA findings
- Potassium and chloride presence, which EPA attributes to hydraulic fracturing operations through “lines of reasoning”, are naturally occurring in the area which has been noted by USGS
- Synthetic compounds EPA declares are related to hydraulic fracturing operations were never used in operations there including Tert-butyl; alcohol and ketones among others. Additional contaminants presence was also called into question given significant variability in findings from multiple certified labs
For more information on Encana’s detailed technical response please see their briefing document which can be found here
UPDATE III (10:42 a.m. EST; Dec. 13) — New details starting to emerge on the process EPA will follow related to comment solicitation/collection and peer-review associated with its draft Pavillion paper. Formal notice of the comment period is slated to run in the Federal Register tomorrow, but you can get a sneak preview of what it will say here. Among the items in the document that jump out to us: EPA’s declaration that the draft report “does not represent and should not be construed to represent any Agency policy or determination.” Of course, EPA also says in this notice that the Pavillion draft has ”not been formally disseminated by EPA. “ Guess they’re not counting that press release they sent out to 50,000 people last Thursday.
UPDATE II (11:32 a.m. EST, Dec. 12) — Not sure how we missed this one over the weekend, but in a story posted Friday on the website of the Casper Star-Tribune, Interior secretary Ken Salazar suggests “the jury is still out” regarding the accuracy and veracity of EPA’s draft report on Pavillion. According to the secretary: “We’ll see what happens with this Pavillion study. And I think it’s important that the real facts finally get to the table with respect to the peer review and seeing whether there’s something specific with respect to that basin that is different from what we have across the country.” Click here to view the story.
UPDATE (8:55 a.m. EST, Dec. 12) — Meaty press release from Encana just crossed the wires this morning; click here to take a look. One of the things in here that really caught our eye — and which wasn’t mentioned in our issue alert below — is the fact that EPA apparently conceded to “finding” petroleum-based contaminants in ”blank” water samples. Blank samples, according to the release, are “ultra purified water samples commonly used in testing to ensure no contamination from field sampling procedures.” How is it possible to detect compounds of concern from crystal-clear, ultra-purified water? Good question.
Call it a sign of the “Times,” let’s say, that less than 24 hours removed from the release of EPA Region 8’s report on groundwater sampling near Pavillion, Wyo., nearly a thousand different news stories have been generated — in 12 different countries, and best we can tell, four different languages. But set aside the breathless headlines for a moment and the triumphant quotes from a small segment of folks committed to ending the responsible development of natural gas, and one’s left with a pretty straightforward question: Is EPA right? And if so, what exactly does that mean moving forward?
Of course, before you can answer the second question, it’d be helpful if you had a good answer for the first. And the truth is, as we sit here today, less than 20 hours A.P. (After Pavillion), we simply don’t. What we do know, however, even at these early stages, is that several of the assertions put forth in EPA’s report yesterday don’t quite square with the facts as they actually exist on the ground out there. Because of that, a number of folks are starting to ask some pretty basic questions about what the agency found and how it went about finding it. Below, a few of the most obvious:
1) Why the huge difference between what EPA found in its monitoring wells and what was detected in private wells from which people actually get their water?
- Contrary to what was reported yesterday, the compounds of greatest concern detected by EPA in Pavillion weren’t found in water wells that actually supply residents their water – they were detected by two “monitoring wells” drilled by EPA outside of town.
- After several rounds of EPA testing of domestic drinking water wells in town, only one organic compound (bis (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate) was found to exceed state or federal drinking water standards – an additive in plastics and one of the most commonly detected organic compounds in water. According to EPA: “Detections in drinking water wells are generally below established health and safety standards.”
- Bruce Hinchey, president of Petroleum Association of Wyoming: “Let me be clear, the EPA’s findings indicate that there is no connection between oil and natural gas operations and impacts to domestic water wells.” (PAW press release, Dec. 8, 2011)
- In contrast, EPA found “a wide variety of organic chemicals” in its two monitoring wells, with greater concentrations found in the deeper of the two. The only problem? EPA drilled its monitoring wells into a hydrocarbon-bearing formation. Think it’s possible that could explain the presence of hydrocarbons?
- According to governor of Wyoming: “The study released today from EPA was based on data from two test wells drilled in 2010 and tested once that year and once in April, 2011. Those test wells are deeper than drinking wells. The data from the test wells was not available to the rest of the working group until a month ago.” (Gov. Mead press release, issued Dec. 8, 2011)
2) After reviewing the data collected by Region 8, why did EPA administrator Lisa Jackson tell a reporter that, specific to Pavillion, “we have absolutely no indication now that drinking water is at risk”? (video available here)
- Of note, Administrator Jackson offered those comments to a reporter from energyNOW! a full week after Region 8 publicly released its final batch of Pavillion data. In that interview, Jackson indicates that she personally analyzed the findings of the report, and was personally involved in conversations and consultations with staff, local officials, environmental groups, the state and the operator.
- After reviewing all that information, and conducting all those interviews, if the administrator believed that test results from EPA’s monitoring wells posed a danger to the community, why would she say the opposite of that on television?
- And if she believed that the state of Wyoming had failed to do its job, why would she – in that same interview – tell energyNOW! that “you can’t start to talk about a federal role [in regulating fracturing] without acknowledging the very strong state role.” (2:46) A week later, why did she choose to double-down on those comments in an interview with Rachel Maddow, telling the cable host that “states are stepping up and doing a good job”? (9:01, aired Nov. 21, 2011)
3) Did all those chemicals that EPA used to drill its monitoring wells affect the results?
- Diethanolamine? Anionic polyacrylamide? Trydymite? Bentonite? Contrary to conventional wisdom, chemicals are needed to drill wells, not just fracture them – even when the purpose of those wells has nothing to do with oil or natural gas development.
- In this case, however, EPA’s decision to use “dense soda ash” as part of the process for drilling its monitoring wells could have proved a bad one.
- One of the main justifications EPA uses to implicate hydraulic fracturing as a source of potential contamination is the high pH readings it says it found in its monitoring wells. But dense soda ash has a recorded pH (11.5) very similar to the level found in the deep wells, creating the possibility that the high pH recorded by EPA could have been caused by the very chemicals it used to drill its own wells.
- According to Tom Doll, supervisor of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission: “More sampling is needed to rule out surface contamination or the process of building these test wells as the source of the concerning results.” (as quoted in governor’s press release, Dec. 8, 2011)
4) Why is the author so confident that fracturing is to blame when most of his actual report focuses on potential issues with casing, cement and legacy pits?
- The report singles-out old legacy pits (which the operator had already voluntarily placed in a state remediation program prior to EPA’s investigation) as the most obvious source of potential contamination. These decades-old pits, which are obviously no longer used, have nothing to do with hydraulic fracturing.
- From the report (page xi): “Detection of high concentrations of benzene, xylenes, gasoline range organics, diesel range organics, and total purgeable hydrocarbons in ground water samples from shallow monitoring wells near pits indicates that pits are a source of shallow ground water contamination in the area of investigation. Pits were used for disposal of drilling cuttings, flowback, and produced water. There are at least 33 pits in the area of investigation.“
- From the report’s concluding paragraph: “[T]his investigation supports recommendations made by the U.S. Department of Energy Panel on … greater emphasis on well construction and integrity requirements and testing. As stated by the panel, implementation of these recommendations would decrease the likelihood of impact to ground water and increase public confidence in the technology.” (p. 39)
5) 2-BE or not 2-BE? That is the question.
- EPA indicates that it found tris (2-butoxyethyl) phosphate in a few domestic water wells. What the agency doesn’t mention is that this chemical is a common fire retardant found in plastics and plastic components used in drinking water wells. It’s not 2-BE, which, although also a common material, is sometimes associated with the completions process.
- According to EPA, in one of the eight samples collected, a small amount of 2-BE was detected. Interestingly, two other EPA labs that measured for the same exact compound reported not being able to detect it in the duplicate samples they were given.
- According to Wyo. governor Mead: “Members of the [Pavillion] working group also have questions about the compound 2-BE, which was found in 1 sample … while other labs tested the exact same water sample and did not find it.” (Mead press release, Dec. 8, 2011)
6) Is EPA getting enough potassium?
- Several times in its report, EPA notes that potassium and chloride levels were found to be elevated in its monitoring wells. But just because you have potassium and chloride doesn’t mean you’ve got potassium chloride, a different chemical entirely and one that’s sometimes associated with fracturing solutions. Nowhere in its report does EPA suggest that potassium chloride was detected.
- According to several USGS studies of groundwater quality in the area, variable — and in some cases, high — concentrations of potassium and chloride have been detected in Pavillion-area groundwater for more than 20 years. (USGS 1991, 1992)
- Interestingly, the potassium levels detected in EPA’s first monitoring well declined by more than 50 percent from October 2010 to April 2011, while the potassium level in EPA’s second monitoring well increased during that same period. Only natural variations in groundwater flow and/or composition could have accounted for this disparity.
- Statement from Wyo. Governor: Draft EPA report “scientifically questionable”
- Statement from PAW president: “The draft report coming out of the EPA is reckless.”
- EID issue alert: Five Quick Facts on Pavillion
- Letter: 2009 letter from Encana to Pavillion community