Research & Commentary: Hydraulic Fracturing and Groundwater Contamination

Published March 2, 2012

The Environmental Protection Agency’s release of its draft “Investigation of Ground Water Contamination near Pavillion, Wyoming” in November 2011 has brought much attention to alleged risks hydraulic fracturing poses to groundwater resources. When considering regulatory actions to prevent such contamination, however, it is important to determine the real causes. EPA Region 8 Administrator James Martin testified the problems at Pavillion are uncommon and do not apply to other hydraulic fracturing operations.

EPA’s draft report indicates contamination in shallow groundwater at Pavillion resulted from surface pit disposal of drilling waste. Those pits preceded Encana Corporation’s purchase of the field and its infrastructure in 2004, and Encana is remedying the problem. Regarding contaminants found in deeper groundwater, EPA blamed several factors.

Multiple issues at the Pavillion site likely resulted from problems with well design, which do not reflect industry best practices. The Pavillion wells were considerably closer to groundwater than those used elsewhere in the nation, including the Marcellus, Utica, and Eagle Ford shales, where drilling occurs thousands of feet below groundwater tables.

The Pavillion well design also included insufficient surface casing that did not protect the entire depth of the aquifer, and a lack of coherent bonding among the well’s constituent elements and the bedrock. Geologically, Pavillion differs from many current shale plays in that the natural gas is extracted from tight gas as opposed to shale, and the reservoir for tight gas also encompasses the aquifer in Pavillion. This is not the case elsewhere in the country.

Dave Pursell, an analyst at the energy investment bank Tudor Pickering Holt, says the Pavillion wells do not reflect industry best practices, which provide “a level of protection that is critical to drinking water, particularly in an instance where you know the reservoir is in close proximity to the aquifer.”

The area studied also lacked baseline data that would have given insight into groundwater conditions prior to the use of hydraulic fracturing. Considering that the U.S. Geological Survey “has detected organic chemicals in the well water in Pavillion (population 175) for at least 50 years,” it is reasonable to conclude some of the constituent chemicals discovered by EPA are a result of natural conditions. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson also has recognized this distinction and said following the draft’s release, “We have absolutely no indication right now that drinking water is at risk.”

Eleven senators have requested the draft study be classified under OMB’s definition of a “highly influential scientific assessment,” which requires the ensuing report to be “subject to the most rigorous, independent, and thorough external peer review process.” Once the peer-review team is selected, it will gather for a two-day meeting in Cheyenne, Wyoming in April or May. A final report will be issued by the end of the year.

The following resources provide additional information about hydraulic fracturing and groundwater contamination.

The EPA Draft Report of Groundwater Contamination Near Pavillion, Wyoming: Main Findings and Stakeholder Responses
The Congressional Research Service gives a detailed analysis of the EPA study, its limits, and the competing viewpoints of industry and environmental groups.

Energy and Environment Subcommittee–EPA Hydraulic Fracturing Research
On February 1 the Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology heard testimony about the Pavillion study from EPA Region 8 Administrator James Martin and other stakeholders. Martin makes clear “that the causal link to hydraulic fracturing has not been demonstrated conclusively, and that our analysis is limited to the particular geologic conditions in the Pavillion gas field and should not be assumed to apply to fracturing in other geologic settings.”

Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in Shale Gas Development
A February 2012 study produced by the Energy Institute at the University of Texas-Austin and released at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science found reports of contamination were not linked to hydraulic fracturing per se but instead to processes related to oil and gas drilling operations more generally. These errors include casing failures, poor cement jobs, aboveground spills, and mishandling of wastewater.

Why Encana Refutes U.S. EPA Pavillion Groundwater Report
Encana, the gas field operator, disputes many of the findings of EPA’s report on the Pavillion groundwater contamination and encourages the agency to validate the study through an extensive, independent review. Encana notes “the EPA’s reported results of all four phases of its domestic water well tests do not exceed federal or state drinking water quality standards for any constituent related to oil and gas development.”

Industry: What Happens in Wyoming Doesn’t Happen in Texas
Industry groups contest the applicability elsewhere of any results from the Pavillion study, given the site’s unique characteristics. Texas Railroad Commission Chair Elizabeth Ames Jones says such geographic diversity reinforces her belief that state-based regulation is superior to federal oversight.

The EPA’s Fracking Scare
The Wall Street Journal notes although threats to drinking water should be taken seriously, the Pavillion study is “neither definitive nor applicable to the rest of the country” because of circumstances that differentiate the site from those of other shale formations.

Six–Actually, Seven–Questions for EPA on Pavillion
Energy in Depth, an offshoot of the Independent Petroleum Association of America (an oil and gas industry trade organization), details several concerns about the draft Pavillion study, questioning whether EPA’s own drilling of monitoring wells contributed to its negative findings.

Groundwater in Pavillion, Wy Contaminated by Hydraulic Fracturing Through Multiple Subsurface Pathways
Brianna Mordick, an oil and gas science fellow at the Natural Resources Defense Council, analyzes the principal findings of the draft Pavillion study and concludes “groundwater near Pavillion, WY has been contaminated by chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing” and “those chemicals most likely reached groundwater through subsurface pathways.” The NRDC advocates federal hydraulic fracturing regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

EPA Releases Hydraulic Fracturing Study Plan
Per congressional request, EPA has begun a more comprehensive study of the impact of hydraulic fracturing on groundwater resources across the country. Preliminary results are expected in late 2012, with a final report expected in 2014.

For further information on this subject, visit the Environment & Climate News Web site at, The Heartland Institute‘s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

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