Case Closed: Landmark Report Clears Fracking and Debunks Activist Claims on Pavillion
There is no evidence that fracking contaminated groundwater in Pavillion, Wyo., according to a landmark report released today by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (WDEQ). From the DEQ fact sheet:
“Evidence does not indicate that hydraulic fracturing fluids have risen to shallow depths utilized by water-supply wells. Also, based on an evaluation of hydraulic fracturing history, and methods used in the Pavillion Gas Field, it is unlikely that hydraulic fracturing has caused any impacts to the water-supply wells.”
The report is a devastating blow for the national environmental activist campaign against fracking, which has made Pavillion a key talking point in its effort to shut down oil and gas development across the country. For years, anti-fracking activists have misrepresented and exaggerated the EPA’s initial conclusions to support their calls for a nationwide fracking ban. They have also ignored serious criticisms of the EPA’s work by state environmental regulators and even other federal agencies, namely the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Land Management, in their desperate attempt to build a case for banning fracking.
Those criticisms from state and federal officials have focused on a pair of water-quality monitoring wells, drilled by the EPA, which were poorly constructed and likely introduced the very contaminants that some have tried to blame on fracking. Eventually, under the weight of these criticisms, the EPA backed down. The agency never submitted its draft report, released in late 2011, for peer review and handed the Pavillion case back to state regulators.
Later, the EPA completed a much larger nationwide study on hydraulic fracturing. Contrary to the claims of “ban fracking” activists, the EPA’s five-year study found no “widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources.” Today’s announcement from the WDEQ doesn’t just close the case on Pavillion – it’s a knock-out blow for the “ban fracking” agenda.
With the Pavillion investigation complete, WDEQ officials have also asked the EPA to plug and abandon those two faulty monitoring wells citing the “potential hazard they pose.” Also from the fact sheet:
“Recommend that the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) plug and abandon the two monitoring wells constructed in 2010 in accordance with Wyoming Water Quality Rules and Regulations Chapter 26, due to the potential hazard they pose in relation to groundwater supplies and physical safety.”
EPA’s own misgivings
As Energy In Depth has noted on many occasions, activists spent years pushing fracking contamination claims in Pavillion based on a single draft EPA report from December 2011.
But these claims ignored the EPA’s own reluctance to blame fracking. After the Pavillion data had been collected and analyzed — but not yet made public — then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said: “We have absolutely no indication right now that drinking water is at risk.” After the report was released, Jackson told reporters, “In no case have we made a definitive determination that the fracking process has caused chemicals to enter groundwater.”
In fact, from the very beginning, EPA officials privately admitted their findings were being misunderstood at best and misrepresented at worst. Internal e-mails released under the Freedom of Information Act show EPA officials fuming over the “inflammatory and irresponsible” coverage of the draft Pavillion report, which failed to note “these limited findings are not final [and] will go through peer review.” The same coverage included this claim from the anti-fracking Natural Resources Defense Council: “Fracking poses serious threats to safe drinking water.”
Criticism piles up
But these claims, and the EPA report used by activists to support them, quickly started to unravel. The theory behind EPA’s report, suggesting a possible link between fracking and water contamination, came under fire almost immediately. State, federal and industry officials found serious flaws in the data EPA used to support it.
Due to concerns over EPA’s methods, the agency agreed to retest its two monitoring wells, and the USGS was brought in to do its own sampling. To save face, the EPA prematurely declared that the USGS findings were “generally consistent” with its own. But in reality, more than 50 separate measurements from the USGS differed from EPA’s results. The USGS also effectively disqualified one of only two monitoring wells used by EPA, due to low flow rates and poor construction.
But USGS was not the only federal agency to find problems with EPA’s data. Don Simpson, then- state director for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), criticized EPA’s testing procedures in Pavillion and suggested EPA could have introduced “bias in the samples” due to faulty construction of its monitoring wells. As he said EPA’s results
“[S]hould not be prematurely used as a line of evidence that supports EPA’s suggestion that gas has migrated into the shallow subsurface due to hydraulic fracturing or improper well completion until more data is collected and analyzed.”
Candid camera and faulty wells
In an October 2012 meeting of the Pavillion Working Group in Riverton, Wyo., WDEQ presented its “down-hole camera” investigation of EPA’s monitoring wells, showing the presence of drilling mud and cuttings at the bottom of the well, which can lead to blockages in a screened section of the well, reducing the flow of water.
And in case you’re curious what those materials might look like, WDEQ also had cameras at the surface when EPA’s leftover drilling mud and cuttings were collected from the well:
DEQ geologist Nicole Twing, who presented the findings of the down-hole camera investigation, explained the importance of the flow rate in an interview with EID:
“You have low flow rates that increase the time water is in contact with those drilling materials, and materials used in drilling mud can affect groundwater quality. You don’t know if it’s biasing the results up or down.” (emphasis added)
In other words, DEQ found that the water at the bottom of that well was both stagnant and apparently contaminated by the very materials that EPA used to build the monitoring well. That means any water samples taken from the well would not be representative of the water outside the well, which presumably had not been contaminated by EPA’s drilling materials.
Due to all the problems with its data, EPA refused to submit its draft report for peer-review, and instead turned the investigation over to state regulators to complete the investigation.
Since then, other researchers have looked at EPA’s monitoring wells and come to the same conclusion. In fact, GSI Environmental recently published a comment in Environmental Science and Technology, explaining that a 2016 report suggesting that oil and natural gas production contaminated water wells in Pavillion, Wyoming, is based on faulty data due to problems with EPA’s monitoring wells. As they concluded:
“In sum, we find no evidence of impacts by hydraulic fracturing to the groundwater resources actually being utilized by the local community. The water quality of the two monitoring wells most likely reflects natural salinity conditions combined with organic contaminants that may have been introduced during installation of the monitoring wells.” (emphasis added)
State and federal officials have been studying the Pavillion case for many years. Multiple investigations have revealed that water quality issues in the region are most likely the result of natural causes. This report is the final definitive chapter fully revealing that anti-fracking activists’ claims about Pavillion are without merit.