Fracking research: What's behind EPA's abandoned studies?
Fracking studies have pit the Environmental Protection Agency against the oil and gas industry, which says the agency has over-reached on fracking and that its science has been critically flawed. The recent closing of EPA fracking investigations has some environmentalists worried that the agency is feeling the effects of industry pressure and tight budgets.
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The EPA opened its inquiry in Dimock, Pa., after residents provided it with private water tests detecting contaminants and complained that state regulators weren't doing enough to investigate the cause.Skip to next paragraph
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When an elderly woman's water well exploded on New Year's morning in 2009, Pennsylvania officials discovered pervasive methane contamination in the well water of 18 homes and linked it to bad casing and cementing in gas company wells. In 2010, they took a series of steps against the drilling company involved, citing it for regulatory violations, barring it from new drilling until it proved its wells would not leak and requiring it to temporarily supply water to affected homes.
But residents said state officials hadn't investigated whether the drilling was responsible for the chemicals in their water. The EPA stepped in to find out if residents could trust the water to be safe after the drilling company stopped bringing replacement supplies.
Starting in early 2012, federal officials tested water in more than five dozen homes for pollutants, finding hazardous levels of barium, arsenic and magnesium, all compounds that can occur naturally, and minute amounts of other contaminants, including several known to cause cancer.
Still, the concentration of pollutants was not high enough to exceed safe drinking water standards in most of the homes, the EPA found (in five homes, filtering systems were installed to address concerns). Moreover, none of the contaminants 2013 except methane -- pointed clearly to drilling. The EPA ended its investigation that July.
Critics pointed to the Dimock investigation as a classic example of the EPA being overly aggressive on fracking and then being proven wrong.
Yet, as in Pavillion, the agency concluded its inquiry without following through on the essential question of whether Dimock residents face an ongoing risk from too much methane, which is not considered unsafe to drink, but can produce fumes that lead to explosions.
The EPA also never addressed whether drilling 2013 and perhaps the pressure of fracking 2013 had contributed to moving methane up through cracks in the earth into their water wells.
As drilling has resumed in Dimock, so have reports of ongoing methane leaks. On June 24, the National Academy of Sciences published a report by Duke University researchers that underscored a link between the methane contamination in water in Dimock and across the Marcellus shale, and the gas wells being drilled deep below.
The gas industry maintains that methane is naturally occurring and, according to a response issued by the industry group Energy In Depth after the release of the Duke research, "there's still no evidence of hydraulic fracturing fluids migrating from depth to contaminate aquifers."
In opening an inquiry in Parker County, Texas, in late 2010, the EPA examined a question similar to the one it faced in Dimock: Was a driller responsible for methane gas bubbling up in residents' water wells?
This time, though, tests conducted by a geologist hired by the agency appeared to confirm that the methane in the wells had resulted from drilling, rather than occurring naturally.
"The methane that was coming out of that well 2026 was about as close a match as you are going to find," said the consultant, Geoffrey Thyne, a geochemist and expert in unconventional oil and gas who has been a member of both the EPA's Science Advisory Board for hydraulic fracturing, and a National Research Council committee to examine coalbed methane development.