Three years ago, residents of Pavillion, Wyo. asked the US Environmental Protection Agency to figure out what had happened to their drinking water, which had begun to taste and smell bad.
EPA scientists sampled residential and municipal water wells, groundwater and soil from nearby natural gas wells, and also drilled their own monitoring wells into the aquifer. The reports coming out of Pavillion were likely familiar. From Colorado to Texas and beyond, residents living in the midst of increasing numbers of drill rigs have complained of well water that smells bad, tastes toxic and can even flame near a match. But there had never been public evidence linking changes in water quality with hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”
(When operators “frack” a well, they inject large amounts of water, sand and chemicals—such as formaldehyde, benzene and hydrochloric acid—into underground fissures at high pressure to release natural gas.)
That’s why it was a big deal, in early December, when EPA released a draft report showing that Pavillion’s deep wells contained high methane levels, benzene concentrations “well above” safe standards, and glycols and alcohols associated with fracking fluids. The oil and gas industry challenged the findings (the company in question, Encana, says the EPA could have introduced the pollutants themselves) and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., accused the agency of basing the report on politics rather than “sound science.”
Initial EPA studies showed that fracking could endanger drinking water supplies. But in 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney—former CEO of Halliburton, the company that pioneered the use of fracking in the 1940s—pressured EPA to alter its findings.
Here in New Mexico, there are 61,858 active oil and gas wells—nearly one well per resident of the city of Santa Fe—but state officials aren’t worried about the report’s findings.
Jim Winchester, communications director for the New Mexico Environment Department, points out that not only is each region different (in terms of things like well depth and water table depth), but each individual well also has a “unique set of circumstances.”
“Fracking has been going on for some time, for decades, and here in New Mexico, we have no reported issues regarding groundwater contamination,” Winchester says. “Using history as a tool to forecast, we feel confident in the procedures that are in place right now.”
It’s useful, however, to take a national look at the history of fracking.
Twenty-three years ago, Alabama residents found a black, stringy substance in their tap water after operators fracking a coal seam hit a separate fracture that provided drinking water.
They sued EPA for failing to regulate fracking, and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in their favor, ordering the state and federal government to regulate the practice, and ordering EPA to begin a three-phase study to determine whether fracking posed a threat to public health.
Initial EPA studies showed that fracking could endanger drinking water supplies. But in 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney—former CEO of Halliburton, the company that pioneered the use of fracking in the 1940s—pressured EPA to alter its findings. (Cheney also succeeded in urging Congress to exempt fracking from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.) In 2004, the agency released the first phase of its study, concluding that, because citizens were unable to prove that contamination in drinking water didn’t come from a source other than fracking, the practice posed “little or no threat” to underground drinking water sources.
At that time, Weston Wilson, a 30-year veteran of the agency, sent the Colorado congressional delegation an 18-page technical analysis of the report, which he called “scientifically unsound and contrary to the purposes of the law.” He also warned that the agency’s improper conduct may result in “danger to public health and safety.”
It has been seven years since I interviewed Wilson at a diner in downtown Denver. He was shaken by his agency’s betrayal of its scientists and the public; he was upset to the point of being willing to speak out against longtime colleagues and put his own career at risk.
Reading the Pavillion draft report reminded me of Wilson’s technical analysis of the altered fracking report. It also reminded me that the intersection of politics and science is nothing new.
It’s worth remembering that intersection as the EPA puts the draft Pavillion report out for public comment—and as New Mexico’s Oil Conservation Division readies to implement a new rule.
According to Gabrielle Gerholt, legal counsel for the OCD, the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association has proposed a new rule to disclose which fluids companies are using to frack wells.
But in an email correspondence, Gwen Lachelt, director of the nonprofit Oil and Gas Accountability Project, calls the rule “terrible.” Industry proposed the rule in New Mexico just as the federal government and other states are starting to require “full and public disclosure” of all the chemicals and additives used during fracking.
Under the proposed rule, she writes, operators in New Mexico will report the chemicals used 45 days after a fracturing operation has already occurred. Moreover, operators aren’t required to disclose more than they already do under a federal law that protects workers from dangerous working conditions; in order to protect “trade secrets,” New Mexico’s rule doesn’t require operators to report the complete cocktail of chemicals used.
In other words, New Mexico’s new rule—proposed by industry itself—isn’t really new after all.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story misspelled "Pavillion" with one "L." SFR regrets the error.