GLENWOOD SPRINGS (AP) – Two recently released reports appear to add weight to fears that the natural-gas extraction process of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” can contaminate aquifers and other sources of fresh water for homes and towns.
One regional oil and gas industry official, however, scoffed at the findings.
“There is a big difference between those who practice science and those who purchase science,” said David Ludlam, executive director of the Western Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association in Grand Junction.
Both reports were prepared by independent hydrologist Tom Myers, Ph.D., of Reno, Nev., whose clients include government agencies and environmental groups.
One report, issued April 30, summed up Myers’ assessment of the Environmental Protection Agency’s investigation into water-well contamination in 2010 and 2011 in the area around Pavillion, Wyo., a region of extensive natural-gas drilling activity.
The EPA, in a report issued in December 2011, found that groundwater in the region probably was contaminated by fracking activities at nearby natural-gas drilling sites.
Fracking is a process in which water, sand and chemicals are injected deep underground to break up rock layers and ease the flow of oil and gas to the surface.
Fracking is used for practically all of the gas wells drilled on Colorado’s Western Slope and has been the subject of criticism from some area residents who say their water supplies and air have been poisoned by drilling activities.
“The EPA’s conclusion is sound,” Myers aid in the summary and recommendations section of his 16-page report.
Myers wrote that the EPA was correct in identifying several factors that he said made the area “especially vulnerable to vertical contaminant transport from the gas production zone” to the water-bearing aquifers that lie closer to the surface.
Those factors, according to his study, include the area’s unique geology, the design of the gas wells being fracked and the construction of those wells.
A second report, commissioned by the National Ground Water Association, concludes that chemicals used in the fracking process would migrate upward toward drinking supplies much more quickly than earlier believed.
The association is a nonprofit group that represents scientists, engineers and businesses in the groundwater industry.
The study, published in the April-May edition of the journal Ground Water, concludes that scientists incorrectly have theorized that rock layers between the deep gas-bearing zones and the shallower aquifer zones are essentially “impermeable” and protect against migration of chemicals from one zone to the other.
Myers wrote in his report that, based on computer modeling, natural faults and fractures permeate the Marcellus Shale formation that lies under large parts of New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and nearby states.
When human-made fractures intersect with the natural fault lines, Myers theorized, “contaminants could reach the surface areas in 10 years or less.”
Other scientists have criticized Myers’ work, arguing that the study is based on incorrect assumptions about the makeup of the Marcellus formation.
According to a story in the ProPublica Web-based journalism site, a Penn State professor argued that the study assumes the formations are more porous than they actually are.
If the rock layers were as porous as Myers believes, said geosciences professor Terry Engelder, fracking would not be necessary in the first place. Engelder is labeled “a proponent of shale-gas development” in the ProPublica article.
Ludlam, also skeptical of Myers’ credibility, said that “the predetermined outcome of his work product isn’t surprising when you consider the energy policy goals of those doing the work.”
Myers’ Marcellus Shale report was paid for by such anti-fracking groups as Catskill Mountainkeeper and the Park Foundation in New York, while his EPA analysis was commissioned by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Wyoming Outdoor Council, Sierra Club and the Oil and Gas Accountability Project.
The findings of Myers’ Pavillion report are being submitted to the EPA as technical comments.
Ludlam said his organization, Western Slope COGA, advocates working with Colorado’s university-based researchers and state regulators “to establish the best science possible.”
Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst with the NRDC, argued that Myers’ work is important.
“There has never been sufficient investigation whether or not fracking is to blame (for groundwater contamination),” she wrote in a blog linked to the NRDC website.
“Industry has paid millions of dollars in legal settlements to Americans across the country, silencing them with nondisclosure agreements so that companies can continue to publicly deny responsibility for problems,” Mall concluded.