TeeJaw Blog

“Not since the Salem witch trials has there been such an uproar about an imagined threat.”

Posted in Government and Politics by TeeJaw on Wednesday, December 14, 2011, 2: 41 PM

Several newspaper stories in the last few days have reported stories about the EPA finding hydrocarbons in groundwater and blaming the oil and gas industry process known as “fracking,” to free trapped natural gas from underground rock.  Most said something like this from the Colorado Springs Gazette:

The Environmental Protection Agency last week found a possible link between groundwater pollution and hydraulic fracturing beneath Pavillion, Wyo. The EPA found compounds likely associated with fracking chemicals in the groundwater beneath the small central Wyoming community where residents complain their well water smells like chemicals. Health officials last year advised residents not to drink their well water after the EPA found low levels of hydrocarbons.

It turns out the EPA spoke too soon.  At a site near several gas wells and water wells at Pavillion, Wyoming (On State Highway 133 about 15 miles NW of Riverton), they drilled some holes to 900 feet and found hydrocarbons.  With this information the declared gas wells were contaminating groundwater.  There’s a problem with that.  Groundwater for most water wells in the area is  found at about 300 feet.  The EPA drilled into an underground formation in which natural gas occurs naturally.  If indeed hydrocarbons are contaminating groundwater, it is occurring naturally, not from nearby gas wells and not from fracking those wells.

This appears in a story by Liz Peek at The Fiscal Times:

Natural gas is abundant, cheap and environment-friendly compared to most alternatives. It produces electricity with 60 percent less CO2 emissions than coal. Notwithstanding those clean air credentials, environmentalists oppose this newfound energy opulence at every point. Specifically, they see dangers from fracking- a process that has been in use for decades – even though there has been almost no actual evidence of contamination. Not since the Salem witch trials has there been such an uproar about an imagined threat. The good news is that we’re not tossing heavily shackled gas drillers down wells and judging them innocent only if they swim to the surface. The bad news is that the opposition to fracking is just about that scientific.

Which is why the green lobby pounced on the EPA announcement like slavering Dobermans thrown a dead chicken. Steve Jones, an environmentalist with the Wyoming Outdoor Council, admitted as much saying, “This is an important first indication there are potential problems with fracking that can impact domestic water wells.” Imagine — all the headlines, marches, protests and legal actions to date have been based on…not much.

As one of the headings in the story says, “Not since the Salem witch trials has there been such an uproar about an imagined threat.”

Besides hydrocarbons the EPA and the Green Lobby have raised alarms about chemicals used in the fracking process, but have never offered any evidence of chemical contamination of groundwater from fracking.  The precise mixture of chemicals used is a closely-guarded trade secret with companies such as Schlumberger and Halliburton because they have huge investments in developing the precise process they use.  Most fracking material is water mixed with sand and small percentages of petroleum chemicals and alcohols such as Isopropanol, which is used in rubbing alcohol, and some contain hydrochloric acid.  To date nobody has offered any evidence that any of the these chemicals have entered the groundwater as a result of fracking operations, and given the propensity of the EPA and Green Lobby to rely on dodgy data and outright deception I’d be suspicious of any such report until it was confirmed by independent scientists, if any can be found.

Decades ago most states with oil and/or gas production established oil and gas conservation commissions to protect correlative rights of landowners and working interest owners, but also to protect groundwater sources from migration of hydrocarbons into groundwater from drilling operations.   Since most oil or gas is found at depths beneath the groundwater and is then piped to the surface, a need for protection of the groundwater was obvious from the early days of oil and gas drilling. Wyoming goes one further and has also established a State Department of Environmental Quality with jurisdiction over oil and gas drilling operations.

Those state agencies are responsible for the implementation and enforcement of regulations for, among other things, the protection of groundwater sources.  The Federal EPA is another layer of regulatory authority energy developers must contend with.  Drillers have a strong incentive to follow the rules of these agencies and to prevent their wells from contaminating groundwater not only because that is the responsible thing to do but also because they have large financial investments in their operations.  They will always want to protect that investment from lawsuits and regulatory enforcement actions.

Protecting their investment by following the rules is the easy part.  Protecting their investment from the rule makers when they are the ones who violate the rules, not to mention the bounds of honesty and fair dealing, is the greater challenge.

UPDATE 12/16/2011: Cheap Abundant Shale Gas Could Help Spark a U.S. Manufacturing Renaissance, and Create 1 million Jobs. That must be why the Greens don’t like it.

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