State Regulators Clear Fracking in Water Pollution Claims

Published March 14, 2011

After conducting a comprehensive study of claims of natural gas production polluting a ranch owner’s aquifer and drinking water, Colorado state regulators concluded the operations undertaken by Pioneer Natural Resources in Las Animas County, Colorado caused no negative water impacts.

In a similar case, Texas state regulators absolved natural gas production of responsibility for diminished water clarity in residential water wells.

Fracking Boosting Energy Production 
Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is a 60-year-old natural gas production technique that, when combined with new technologies and drilling methods, is being increasingly used to produce natural gas from formations where it had previously been technologically or economically unfeasible to produce gas. The growing use of fracking is the single biggest factor in the large increase in natural gas production in the United States during the past decade.

As fracking has grown in use, so have complaints about it. Yet despite many anecdotal claims of water and air pollution associated with fracking, numerous studies have found no link between the activity and reported problems. 

No Fracking Fluids Found
Rancher and North Fork Landowner’s Association President Tracy Dahl argued he had clean and clear water on his property before Pioneer began hydraulic fracturing activities on a coal-bed methane well on an adjoining property. Dahl claimed his water quality has recently deteriorated and asked state regulators to investigate, claiming the nearby hydraulic fracturing activity must be to blame.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission confirmed diminished water quality in Mr. Dahl’s well, but the Commission’s environmental experts could find no link to Pioneer’s natural gas activities. In particular, the Commission’s environmental specialist found no traces of facking fluid or natural gas in the well, and silt and bacterial counts were within the acceptable range. 

Shallower Formations to Blame
The determinations in Colorado were echoed less than a week later in a case before the Texas Railroad Commission.

In this case, homeowners blamed Range Resources natural gas production in two Barnett Shale natural gas wells for contaminating residential water wells in Parker County. Based solely on the complaints of homeowners but without any evidence linking Range’s operations to the well water pollution, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued an emergency order in December to Range Resources requiring them to take immediate action to protect the homeowners from natural gas contamination in their wells.

Range fought this order, arguing the contamination could not have come from their operations, but instead likely came from a shallow source of natural gas near the water wells. 

As in the Pioneer case, environmental experts from the Texas Railroad Commission found the most likely source of contamination was not Range’s wells in the Barnett Shale but instead shallower geological formations.

In the face of the evidence presented, the EPA backed off its strong contention Range’s operations were likely causing the problem, and instead claimed speculatively the company’s operations may have contributed to them. EPA, however, declined to present any findings or testimony to support this assertion in the hearing before the railroad commission. 

Fracking Safety
According to experts, it should have been clear even before the Colorado and Texas investigations that natural gas fracking operations were unlikely to be the cause of the tainted water wells. Gary L. Stone, vice-president of engineering at Five States Energy Capital, observed, “Ground water aquifers generally occur at depths under a thousand feet. Most producing shales occur at depths greater than 5,000 feet, and all the way past 10,000 feet.  Hydraulic fracturing generally impacts a few hundred feet around a wellbore at most.”
“Logic, engineering calculations, and empiric observations tell you there is not enough horsepower in all the frack trucks in the country to propagate a fracture through solid rock for more than a mile, much less two, to adversely impact ground water formations,” Stone added. “Courts and regulatory agencies from Colorado to Texas are confirming this fact.”

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., ([email protected]) is a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis.