EPA Connects Dots Between Groundwater Contamination and Fracking in Wyoming

The tables turned on the gas industry today with the release of a new report by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) connecting the dots between fracking and groundwater contamination in the state of Wyoming, located in the hear tof the Niobrara Shale basin.

The report is sure to leave many saying, “Well, duh!” and also asking, “What took them so long?” The perils of fracking for gas in the Niobrara Shale were made famous long ago by Debra Anderson's documenary “Split Estate.” 

Report Comes on Heels of Citizen Action in Dimock, PA

The Wyoming report comes on the heels of a large citizen action involving a water delivery to 12 Dimock, Pennsylvania families, led by “Gasland” Director Josh Fox and actor Mark Ruffalo. The action centered around another case of water contaminated by Cabot Oil and Gas. Cabot was delivering clean drinking water since 2008 to the families after it contaminated their water, but recently, the Pennsylvania DEP ordered that Cabot was no longer responsible for transporting water to these families. 

Put another way, cases of water contamination are nothing “new.” 

In fact, EPA first tied fracking to contaminated underground sources of drinking water in 1987. In a 25-year old investigative report, discovered by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Earthjustice, the EPA outlines how fracking for shale gas contaminated a domestic water well in West Virginia.

More recently, four Duke University scientists released a study in May 2011 linking methane contamination to groundwater on fracking sites.

ProPublica's Abrahm Lustgarten wrote of the report

The research was conducted by four scientists at Duke University. They found that levels of flammable methane gas in drinking water wells increased to dangerous levels when those water supplies were close to natural gas wells. They also found that the type of gas detected at high levels in the water was the same type of gas that energy companies were extracting from thousands of feet underground, strongly implying that the gas may be seeping underground through natural or manmade faults and fractures, or coming from cracks in the well structure itself.

Energy in Depth Redux?

Predictably, Energy in Depth (EID), an industry funded front group, responded immediately to the report in force, writing a piece titled, “Duke Study Misrepresented.”

We can probably safely assume an EID “refutation” of the EPA study is already in the works. After all, one of the fossil fuel industry's best friends, climate change denier, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), has already come out on the offensive against the EPA.

In response to the study, Inhofe stated, ”EPA's conclusions are not based on sound science but rather on political science.”

As the Senate's leading climate denier, Inhofe sure knows how to politicize science, and how to ignore real science in favor of industry excuses masquerading as science. 

Update: As expected, Energy in Depth has responded to the EPA report in an article titled, “Six Questions for EPA on Pavillion.” This is, of course, par for the course for EID, which serves as the gas industry's go-to source for crisis communications responses like these.


Thanks for posting that.

I read through it.  The actual report is only 39 pages, the rest is appendixes with charts, graphs, photos, etc.

It’s actually a pretty reasonable and well-balanced report.  Having read it, I can’t see how anyone can make the assertion,

“The tables turned on the gas industry today with the release of a new report by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) connecting the dots between fracking and groundwater contamination …”

That’s a pretty wild misrepresentation, to say the least.  The report pretty clearly states that the results are inconclusive in the absence of baseline data.

As stated in the final paragraph of the Conclusions section:

“Finally, this investigation supports recommendations
made by the U.S. Department of Energy Panel (DOE
2011a, b) on the need for collection of baseline data,
greater transparency on chemical composition of
hydraulic fracturing fluids, and greater emphasis on
well construction and integrity requirements and
testing. As stated by the panel, implementation of
these recommendations would decrease the
likelihood of impact to ground water and increase
public confidence in the technology.

Note the last sentence.  While Mr. Horn’s goal, obviously, is to undermine public confidence in hydraulic fracturing technology, it seems the EPA’s intention is to increase confidence.  The EPA is actually being rather prudent here.

So where have the tables been turned?  I don’t see it.

Chris, you might try actually reading the conclusion first.

As you can see this is a far cry from the usual industry clap trap that somehow water that tastes like gosoline isn’t their fault.

Detection of high concentrations of benzene, xylenes, gasoline range organics, diesel range organics, and total purgeable hydrocarbons in ground water samples from shallow monitoring wells near pits indicates that pits are a source of shallow ground water contamination in the area of investigation. Pits were used for disposal of drilling cuttings, flowback, and produced water. There are at least 33 pits in the area of investigation. When considered separately, pits represent potential source terms for localized ground water plumes of unknown extent. When considered as whole they represent potential broader contamination of shallow ground water. A number of stock and domestic wells in the area of investigation are fairly shallow (e.g., < 30 m) representing potential receptor pathways. EPA is a member of a stakeholder group working with the operator to determine the areal and vertical extent of shallow ground water contamination caused by these pits. The operator of the site is currently engaged in investigating and remediating several pit areas.

Detection of contaminants in ground water from deep sources of contamination (production wells, hydraulic fracturing) was considerably more complex than detection of contaminants from pits necessitating a multiple lines of reasoning approach common to
complex scientific investigations. In this approach, individual data sets and observations are integrated to formulate an explanation consistent with each data set and observation. While each individual data set or observation represents an important line of reasoning, taken as a whole, consistent data sets and observations provide compelling evidence to support an explanation of data. Using this approach, the explanation best fitting the data for the deep monitoring wells is that constituents associated with hydraulic fracturing have been released into the Wind River drinking water aquifer at depths above the current production zone.

Consistently not reading or at best not comprehending.

Say this with me;

Using this approach, the explanation best fitting the data for the deep monitoring wells is that constituents associated with hydraulic fracturing have been released into the Wind River drinking water aquifer at depths above the current production zone.

So guess its true, you can lead a horse to water (that would be you), but you can’t make him drink it (that would be you reading).

W o u l d   i t   h e l p   i f   I   t y p e d   s l o w e r   f o r   y o u ?

How much and how safe is a different discussion.  But currently there is no way to expedite that kind of thinking if oil companies continue to bury their heads in the sand and pretend that water contamination doesn’t occur.

Also, it will not mitigate the issue of fluid migration.  Presumably if they had food grade fracking fluids, then they would need to ensure that they had food grade oil and gas, ‘cause that is still getting into the water.


So you can see that Hailburton is currently trying to solve something they deny is happening…

Obviously, there’s more holes in that logic than you can shake a Spock (or chris_b) at.

I’m clever enough to be writing comments on the internet. That’s all I’ve ever claimed. I’m not here to wow you with my intellect. My motivation involves questioning things, sometimes with a measure of ridicule and once in a while learning something. Something I wonder about is what motivates you. Not sure.

It doesn’t seem you are here to question anything or to learn anything so it must be about lending moral support to the folks here writing articles on a subject  you already know all about or possibly you are worried that contrarian blog commenters are going to bring a catastrophic end to the world.

That’s all I got so far. I’ll let you know if I come up with any new theories.

Hi Rick,

Safe fracking fluids would only resolve a small part of contamination. Tight regulation on casing and well construction would be the best protection. Do away with the pits “zero discharge” would solve some other problems. The problems that will loom regardless will be leaks and things like truck wrecks.

Production wells produce oil and gas and very dirty water. That is why you use “monitoring wells” to well actually monitor what you have done to the aquifers.

Seems to me your reading comprehension skills need remedial study.

Of course it is always difficult to tell whether AGW denier trolls are ignorant, dishonest or, most likely, both.

What with all your angry spluttering insults, you seem to have missed the whole point.

The EPA report conjectures the contamination may have come from open holding pits used to temporarily hold drilling mud, completion fluids, etc. at the well sites.  lt does not positively state that fracking fluid constituents came from the production wells themselves.

OK.  So you think the EPA needs to measure whether the oil companies put fracking fluids in in their fracking wells?  Umm… They did.  They said so.

Now continuing with your ‘logic’… you’d think they fracked the monitoring wells.  That’s how you’d get fracking fluid in a monitoring well, right?

Fair Question…

EPA installed two deep monitoring wells (designated as MW01 and MW02) using air (0 - 6 m bgs) and mud rotary (6 m bgs to target depth).

Now… for the mud well (MW01), you can see they used drilling mud that did not contain any of the chemicals found in the water.  (Quik Gel - Page 7 of the report).  Now the chemicals I listed previously were not found during the drilling process.  For a list of all chemicals detected during drilling see page 8.

Are you familiar with an Air Hammer?  That would be MW02.  There are no fluids used at all.

The monitoring wells were not fracked.

I would be less condescending when you start reading and commenting intelligently.  Right now you are grasping at straws you clearly don’t understand.  Deny deny deny.

“Now continuing with your ‘logic’… you’d think they fracked the monitoring wells.  That’s how you’d get fracking fluid in a monitoring well, right?”

Sorry, you were saying something about “reading comprehension”, earlier?

Yea a balanced report but it does not just exactly floor the oil and gas industry. For one thing Mr. Horn fails to point out that this is dealing with conventional wells rather than unconventional. Yes they found a witches brew of chemicals in the water, including fracking fluids, but caused by factors other than fracking. When a final report emerges and any rulings are made it is going to point to the really crappy well construction and that the state of Wyoming dropped the ball in just about every way. With no barrier zone between the hydrocarbon zone and the aquifer, these wells should not have even been drilled! Cement bond logs show multiple deficiencies. At least one was not even circulated back to surface! Fracturing was done only 420 feet below the depth of surrounding water wells. Why did the state even let them go in production? What was the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission doing? Did they even have a geologist that graduated high school? In most of the unconventional plays the fracking is done several thousand feet below any aquifer that has multiple layers of strata between the fracking and the aquifers including multiple zones of naturally contaminated (brine) water.

As for the pits this is a good case to push for zero discharge drilling. Some states have considered it but have been beaten down by the operators because of the extra expense. This will also reduce the location sizes by 40-50%. No pits! This should possibly be a federal regulation. Mexico requires zero discharge drilling, Alaska requires zero discharge, offshore requires it. So why not everywhere?

So to put it in a nutshell this does not have anything to do with fracking but rather on poor well construction, then add poor judgment, and poor NO regulation.

Just curious, but do you think Halliburton is wasting its time working on food grade fracking fluids?


I mean they’ve been working on removing benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene and xylene for 10 years, appearently with some success from their fracking fluids.  Yet according to you its a non-issue, and fracking is completely safe.

Anyways.  I don’t buy the ‘Its the state’s fault’ arguement.  That’s like saying I’m only required to have as much scrupples and ethics as is required by law.

Following that logic implies that oil companies are unethical and amoral and most certainly cannot be trusted.

Never did I say fracking was completely safe. To say anything is completely safe would be a foolish illusion. You could slip and fall in the bathtub. Nothing is completely safe. So the main idea is to do things as safe a possible. Safe fracking fluids would be of limited benefit. I could see where Halliburton could gain PR from it and possibly lock up some patents but as far as making the fracking operation safe? Some contamination comes from surfaces spills others from faulty well casings. This could mitigate the surface spill problems but do little for contamination from faulty casing. I say this because between the ground water zones down through the hydrocarbon zones there are all kinds of nasty stuff. If fracking fluids travel from a perforation to the ground water it will go through all kinds of crap that is worse than the fracking fluids themselves. Basically the only way fracking fluids, at least here in Arkansas, can make it to the ground water is from surface spills or casing problems. You could use food grade fracking fluid but it would not be edible or healthy once it comes from down there. PR scheme! Good casing is the key. Zero discharge would be even better.

As for the state they do share a big part of the blame. The state oil and gas regulators in each state must review well plans and only approve them if safe. They allowed fracking to take place 420ft below an aquifer is just bad judgment. They and their geologist prescribe casing and cementing requirements. Second they must insure that the well follows the approved plan. Then they must strictly enforce well construction and testing. Issue fines, require corrections and repairs, and possibly deny future permits for gross violations. Now as for the operators or drilling companies having ethics. Some may have a little but don’t hold your breath that is why the state regulators are there.

From a blog long ago I mentioned about that they were trying to do away with gas and oil altogether. I even think you jumped in defending conventional drilling. Well now they are going after conventional drilling. What do you think of that?

There were complaints of small proportions when I was on rigs.  I’ve also always known that cementing doesn’t prevent cross formation fluid paths.

I disagree that the state takes a huge portion of any blame.  Period.  These companies drill all over the place.  What executive decides that he can use lax practices in one state, and not another?  One who’s immoral, unethical and of course unconcerned about the environment? 

At what point does a company grow a little back bone and actually decide to do something for something other than its bottom line?

Anyways, glad to see you commenting.  Keep it up.  (We need a better class of opposition.)