Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Fracking Company Goes on the Offensive Against EPA Contamination Report

Photo by Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica (Creative Commons)

Louis Meeks’ well water contains methane gas, hydrocarbons, lead and copper, according to the EPA’s test results.

The company behind a fracking well in Wyoming that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says may have contaminated water sources held a conference call today. Encana, the company that owns the drilling operation, faulted the EPA’s methodology and objectives. The call provided a good indication of how the company, and perhaps the fracking industry at large, is going on the offensive.

The EPA’s report is receiving so much attention because it is the first report from the federal government that links hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) to contamination of water. Chances are if you didn’t know what fracking was before, you do now. The process of drilling horizontal wells deep underground and pressure-blasting a mix of water, sand and chemicals into rock shale formations to release deposits of oil and gas is a relatively new innovation in the drilling world, and has only begun to be used widely in the last decade. And now fracking is in turns being pilloried, defended, questioned and lauded. With the agency’s new report, the debate over fracking has reached a new volume.

A concern in the drilling industry is that the EPA report is laying the groundwork for federal regulation of fracking under the Safe Drinking Water Act. (Why is fracking exempt from federal regulation? Read this helpful explainer by our sister site StateImpact Pennsylvania on the “Halliburton Loophole.”) Fracking is currently regulated by individual states.

Unless you’ve got multiple degrees in chemistry, geology and hydrology, chances are much of the information given by Encana today was difficult to process. What’s clear, however, is that the company intends to fight the EPA on its data point by point.

A good twenty minutes of the call was given to David Stewart, the company’s environmental health and safety lead. He criticized the EPA for straying from its original objectives of investigating local residents’ reports of foul-smelling, discolored and off-tasting water from their private water wells and drilling deep test wells elsewhere near the fracking site. “The EPA made critical mistakes and misjudgments at almost every step in the process,” Stewart said. He also said that some of the agency’s results from deep test wells were a result of its own drilling. These are the same talking points the company used after the initial release of the report.

The company also laid blame on the residents themselves, saying some locals had drilled wells deeper than they were supposed to, hitting relatively shallow methane deposits and bacteria in the area that contaminated their water. Encana faults other residents for drilling private water wells without permits.

What does this mean for drilling in Texas? The obvious concern is that the federal government will point to its studies of fracking and water contamination to call for federal regulation. And headlines across the country linking fracking to pollution are certainly a headache to the industry. Last week the Railroad Commission of Texas enacted disclosure rules that require fracking companies to publicly list what chemicals they use on the website FracFocus.org. “Our industry was very much behind the bill that instigated that regulation, and we worked very closely with the regulation to make sure that’s done right,” David Blackmon, a representative for the industry group Natural Gas Alliance, told StateImpact Texas.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson Talks About Fracking Regulation

“Pretty much everything we do is already regulated either at the local, state or federal level,” Blackmon said. “So I’m not sure that [additional regulation] is really their goal here, to be honest.” Blackmon notes that the head of the agency, Lisa Jackson, indicated recently that the EPA wasn’t interested in more regulation. “Well, what we consider is that they are regulated already at the state level,” she told the website energyNow!, which is funded in part by the drilling company Chesapeake, in November. “The vast majority of oil and gas production is regulated at the state level.” Jackson said. The agency has said that it intends to regulate the wastewater from fracking to “ensure that it’s properly disposed of.”

The EPA report is currently under a period of peer review and public comment.

Here is the full draft report from the agency:


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