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Science Favors Fracking in Water Debate, Two Experts Say

Contrary to common perceptions, there is no clear evidence that hydraulic fracturing (fracking) has contaminated water supplies, given closer scientific scrutiny of recent high-profile cases, according to two geology/hydrology experts speaking at a seminar Tuesday in Los Angeles.

As an example, the much publicized U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) water testing in Pavillion, WY (see Shale Daily, Dec. 9, 2011) has turned out to be flawed from a scientific and political standpoint, according to Daniel Stephens, an Albuquerque, NM-based consulting hydrologist, who spoke at the Law Seminar International workshop on fracking.

Stephens has compiled a detailed narrative on the Pavillion water testing case that he said debunks most of EPA's work. It has been accepted for publication in the professional publication Groundwater Journal, said the independent hydrologist, who has shared some of his Pavillion work with the American Petroleum Institute (API).

Drawing heavily on his treatise, Stephens said EPA badly mishandled the Wyoming case, whose objective was simply to determine if fracking caused odor and taste problems starting almost a decade ago in and around Pavillion, which has a population of a few hundred people.

As a result of EPA walking away from the Pavillion case last year, the state of Wyoming has assumed the lead investigative role and expects to have a final report from its Department of Environmental Quality by the end of September (see Shale Daily, Aug. 12).

Similarly, Daniel Tormey, a principal at ENVIRON in Los Angeles, uncovered little or no negative impact from fracking in a detailed, multi-year study of two oil wells drilled in the urban-based Inglewood Oilfield, about 10 miles southwest of downtown Los Angeles. In late 2012, Tormey completed a two-year study mandated in a legal settlement centered on fracking at the nearly century-old oilfield.

Eric Adair, a former oil industry attorney now with the Southern California law firm Hinson, Gravelle & Adair LLP, called Tormey's study "the single most complete study of hydraulic fracturing from start to finish."

Tormey's study assessed fracking's impact on ground motion, seismicity, water quality and well integrity among 10 aspects tested. He is now in the midst of doing a national study of all the nation's major shale basins for API.

In the Inglewood Oilfield work, "there were no measurable impacts, except microseismic activity," said Tormey, noting that his research effort with co-authors Megan Schwartz and Molly Middaugh, was the “first ever" comprehensive study of all of the effects of fracking using two vertical hydraulic fracturing jobs.

Unlike earlier periods in U.S. history in which Americans more generally trusted technology, today Tormey said there is not the same level of trust and that society is more polarized on issues such as climate change, genetically altered foods and vaccines. "The idea behind this study was to simply obtain objective data related to concerns people have."

In reference to his ongoing API work looking at the differences among U.S. shale basins in terms of geology, water and other aspects, Tormey said "not all shale basins are created equal," citing the recent major downgrading of the California Monterey Shale's recoverable reserves as an example of the wide variations.

In a field including all three types of earthquake faults and groundwater at 500-foot depths, Tormey studied single-stage vertical fracking jobs and took microseismic measurements as they were taking place. Among nearly a dozen major conclusions: there was no ground movement or changes in groundwater due to fracking.

Stephens pointed out that in his analysis the gas formation at Pavillion is a lot shallower than the California case, and the domestic water wells were virtually co-located with the gas wells. The New Mexico-based hydrologist's chronology from 2008 almost up to the present shows the involvement of EPA’s Denver office, as well as Lisa Jackson, who was head of EPA 2009-2013, and on through the Obama administration’s energy adviser.

Over time, the science and sample-gathering were shown to be compromised, the communications of draft results were taken out of context, industry pushed back hard, and some clean up scientific work that the U.S. Geological Survey did was basically ignored, said Stephens. Even the Bureau of Land Management eventually piled on, suggesting that EPA's sampling was shoddy and concluded it was "premature" to tie fracking to groundwater sampling results.

"A much larger and more robust study was recommended before any conclusions could be drawn about fracking's role," he said.

Stephens is skeptical about a newer, national effort by EPA that intends to look at fracking and water supplies at five locations in four states, with none of them being any of the three areas where the agency had done previous studies -- Pavillion; Dimock, PA; and Parker County, TX.

Stephens made six recommendations for any future studies: clear objectives; baseline data; careful planning; wide stakeholder involvement; high standards of data collection; and rigorous peer review.

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