Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Fracking Report Reverberates in Texas

A draft report from the Environmental Protection Agency sent shockwaves through the industry this week. The report showed that the technique of oil and gas drilling called hydraulic fracturing lead to water contamination in Pavillion, Wyoming.

Railroad Comissioner David J. Porter believes the report is flawed, but says more research should be done.

The EPA continues to research the impacts of fracking.  But this study came at the request of residents of Pavillion, Wyoming. They asked the agency to investigate drinking water they suspected was tainted from nearby wells. It took three years, but this month, the EPA announced it had found chemicals associated with Hydraulic fracturing in the water.

The news comes at a time of growing acrimony between Texas’ overwhelmingly Republican state government and the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency. So it came as little surprise when the results came under fire from some state policymakers.

“To say it was fracking plays within the ideological agenda that the EPA’s got, rather than the hard science and facts,” Railroad Commissioner David Porter told StateImpact Texas. The Texas Railroad Commission is the state agency that oversees the oil and gas industry.

Lurking behind such statements is the concern that the EPA’s findings could be used to justify stricter federal regulations or even possibly a ban on fracking.

“I think the polarized positions in the shale gas development are becoming more entrenched and so you chose up sides rather look at the evidence,” said Dr. Chip Groat, Associate Director of University of Texas’ Energy Institute.  “[That] is not a fortunate thing for either our energy future or for the validity of an environmental issue.”

Groat headed up a study that recently found no evidence of fracking contaminating water supplies. But the study did find that improper drilling and other surface activities associated with fracking can contaminate water sources. He says if the EPA’s study ends up proving that fracking itself caused the Pavilion contamination, that could throw his findings into question.

“That would negate our general conclusion that we haven’t found any evidence. This in fact would be evidence for that [contamination],” said Groat.

But Groat and others point out that the EPA draft report does not go as far as to categorically blame fracking.  Instead, the Agency is careful to list its results as preliminary, and contingent upon peer review.

In a response to a request for comment from StateImpact Texas, the EPA reiterated that its findings were “specific to production conditions at Pavillion, where fracturing occurred in and below the drinking water aquifer and in close proximity to drinking water wells.”

It’s something that state officials say doesn’t happen in Texas.

“Well hello! [fracking near the water table] is a really bad thing to do! We do not allow that, and our geology doesn’t allow for it either,” Elizabeth Ames Jones, who chairs the Railroad Commission, told StateImpact Texas.

Since the report came out, Jones has been arguing that even if the EPA report is corroborated, its findings won’t extend to drilling in Texas. The Commission says there are currently no fracking operations within close proximity to drinking water wells in the state.

“Our Geology is so different around the country. In fact, our geology is so different around Texas,” said Ames Jones.

Geologist Chip Groat says it’s a “safe statement” to say that fracking like the kind that happened in Pavillion doesn’t happen in Texas.  “We do have several thousand feet with impermeable rock layers between fracturing depths and shallow ground water,” Groat said, “so I think its a safe thing to say that conditions are much different here. And much more protective here than they are up there.”

“But,” he added, “if you have other places where the conditions are like Pavillion than you need to be careful.”

The draft report has underlined one important point. For a technology that’s already revolutionized the US energy industry, there is still a lot to learn about what hydraulic fracturing does to the environment. The EPA study is now open to public comment and under peer review by a panel of scientists.  It could make its way into a larger study the agency is conducting into the impacts of hydraulic fracturing.


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