The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has handed a potent weapon to opponents of shale gas development in North America, as its report of tainted ground water linked to gas drilling in Wyoming lends credence to the worst fears of people living near drilling operations.
For years, leading industry executives have insisted there is no evidence that the method used – hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as it is commonly called – has ever polluted groundwater. Exxon Mobil Corp. chairman Rex Tillerson told a U.S. congressional committee last year that there had never been a reported case of contamination of a fresh-water aquifer resulting from fracking.
Mr. Tillerson is no longer able to make that same claim, with the EPA – rather than environmental activists – providing the evidence to the contrary in bluntly worded documents released this week. The agency did caution that its findings in Pavillion, Wyo., were preliminary, and that the apparent tainting of well water may be the result of local conditions and poor drilling practices that are not necessarily duplicated elsewhere.
Fracking is a critical element in the advanced drilling techniques that have resulted in the shale gas boom and dramatically transformed North America’s energy picture, pushing down prices for natural gas to less than a quarter of what they were several years ago. It is now being used to develop new crude oil deposits, such as North Dakota’s Bakken play, that have been instrumental in reversing the long decline in oil production in the U.S.
But the EPA report will clearly add an arrow to the quiver of those who want drilling activities seriously curtailed. However, it is unlikely to result in a real brake on activity unless further problems are brought to light.
New York state and the province of Quebec have both imposed moratoriums on shale-gas drilling, and other states and provinces are facing pressure to do so, as environmental groups warn that local water sources are threatened by the hydraulic fracturing technique used to free the natural gas from rock. With hydraulic fracturing, companies shoot chemically laced water under high pressure into rock fissures to crack the shale and release the trapped gas.
Opponents say the EPA report vindicates years of complaints from residents across the U.S. who have suspected their water is contaminated.
“The house of cards that is fracking is falling apart,” said Josh Fox, the director of Gasland, the Academy Award-nominated documentary about the dangers of shale gas drilling. His documentary – scorned by the industry as wildly inaccurate – is standard viewing among grassroots oppositions group, and has even been sub-titled into French and distributed widely in Quebec.
With the findings from the EPA, any citizen complaint of groundwater contamination should trigger “an immediate drilling moratorium” until more testing can be done, he said.
Michael Binnion, chief executive officer of Questerre Energy Corp., said the Wyoming water problems have long been a cause célèbre among critics who will now use the EPA study to buttress their opposition.
“I think there will be room for the Gaslands [people]and the other opponents to purposely misconstrue what this says,” he said.
Questerre was exploring some shale gas properties in Quebec until the government imposed a de facto moratorium while it studies the issue. He acknowledged that some in the industry have overstated the safety of fracking, which can threatened local water sources if wells are designed poorly.
Mr. Binnion said shale gas drilling is actually safer than fracking in conventional wells because, with the deeper shale play, the targeted rock is hundreds of metres below freshwater aquifers.
But he said the industry needs to address other legitimate safety issues to reduce the risk of contamination of ground water. The Questerre executive said companies should thoroughly investigate water conditions before drilling, release the chemical composition of the fracking fluid, and accept tough standards for well construction.
Supporters of the industry say the Obama administration is pursuing an anti-oil-and-gas political agenda through the EPA. They argue the agency exaggerated the results from the Wyoming study in order to justify federal government regulation of hydraulic fracturing, which is now done by the states. And they question the methodology of the Pavillion work.