Shale Daily / NGI All News Access

More Wyoming Well Tests Ahead; Local Fallout Felt

It is a matter of when, not if, additional testing will be done in Pavillion, WY, where the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has two test wells that turned up suspected chemicals tied to the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of natural gas wells in the area. Gov. Matt Mead's spokesperson has confirmed that additional tests are coming, but they are still not scheduled.

Even though no contamination of local drinking water has been confirmed and EPA has said the local water is safe, the testing and initial reports last year have cast a pall over the area that is being felt in the day-to-day economy. Local businesses and landowners have run into resistance from potential customers concerned about water supplies, according to a Casper, WY, news report last Sunday.

The concerns about the misperceptions surrounding Pavillion prompted a local news reporter who has been covering the story to write a first-person apology to the town and its residents in the Sunday edition of the Casper Star-Tribune. Reporter Jeremy Fugleberg said he was sorry for his part in "scary headlines and often simplistic coverage that has hurt people and could do more damage in the future."

Fugleberg lamented the fact that "a belief that all water in the Pavillion area is bad" has driven away customers and buyers, risking local financing and creating a potential for driving down local property values. "I'm sorry," he wrote.

Nevertheless, news coverage points to different reactions to the fact that so far there is no clear evidence that fracking is contaminating local water supplies. For industry backers, they cite this as evidence that the process is inherently safe, but for critics and environmentalists, the absence of any evidence is cited as the need for more investigation, according to reports.

Drilling activity in Wyoming is slowly rebounding following the significant drop-off in late 2008, early 2009, when dropping commodity prices teamed with bank collapses forced producers to adjust. According to Baker Hughes data, between 70 to 82 rigs were actively searching for oil or gas in the state in late 2008. That number dropped to 29 during the summer of 2009, but has slowly inched higher to the current 45 rigs in operation.

The fracking issue has been roiling since late last year when the primary operator in the area, Encana Corp., disputed EPA draft report findings on contaminants in ground water (see Shale Daily, Dec. 23, 2011). Mead more recently has continued to urge additional testing at Pavillion (see Shale Daily, Feb. 8).

"The governor would like [the additional testing] to be done before the peer review starts on the EPA tests," said his spokesperson. He said the plans are to have EPA, Wyoming and U.S. Geological Survey specialists conduct the added tests.

"Gov. Mead spoke with [EPA] Administrator [Lisa] Jackson last week, and they had a productive discussion about joint testing and collaborative efforts for a long-term investigation as well as a long-term water solution," the spokesperson said. "This dialogue is ongoing."

In addition, a bill that would provide state funding for a long-term water solution for residents outside of Pavillion is now moving through the Wyoming state legislative process, he said.

Earlier this month Mead stressed that the EPA has said the local drinking water is safe, noting that the test wells looked at groundwater, not drinking water. However, the governor also acknowledged that the fracking of gas wells in the Pavillion area is at extremely shallow depths compared to typical gas drilling, and therefore drinking water supplies may be unusually close to the well work.

In defending the EPA's 2013 budget request of $8.344 billion before the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittees on Energy and Power, Environment and the Economy on Tuesday, Jackson also defended the agency's ongoing two-year study of fracking, while deferring on some of the questions from the lawmakers until the research is complete (see Shale Daily, Feb. 29).

In March 2010 the EPA began its study of the potential risks of fracking on water quality and public health. Environmentalists and some lawmakers contend that the chemicals used in fracking are a health risk, but producers say they are confident that the study -- if conducted objectively -- will show fracking to be safe.

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