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Climate Change Will Force A New American Migration

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August besieged California with a heat unseen in generations. A surge in air conditioning broke the state's electrical grid, leaving a population already ravaged by the coronavirus to work remotely by the dim light of their cellphones. By midmonth, the state had recorded possibly the hottest temperature ever measured on earth — 130 degrees in Death Valley — and an otherworldly storm of lightning had cracked open the sky. From Santa Cruz to Lake Tahoe, thousands of bolts of electricity exploded down onto withered grasslands and forests, some of them already hollowed out by climate-driven infestations of beetles and kiln-dried by the worst five-year drought on record. Soon, California was on fire.

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As Climate Doomsday Ticks Closer, US Emissions Increase

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

 

The signals are blaring: Dramatic changes to our climate are well upon us. These changes — we know thanks to a steady drumbeat of alarming official reports over the past 12 months — could cripple the U.S. economy, threaten to make vast stretches of our coastlines uninhabitable, make basic food supplies scarce and push millions of the planet’s poorest people into cities and across borders as they flee environmental perils.

All is not yet lost, we are told, but the demands of the moment are great. The resounding consensus of scientists, economists and analysts tells us that the solution lies in an unprecedented global effort to immediately and drastically drop carbon emissions levels. That drop is possible, but it will need to happen so fast that it will demand extraordinary commitment, resolve, innovation and, yes, sacrifice. The time we’ve got to work with, according to the United Nations, is a tad more than 10 years.

And so it stings particularly badly to learn from a new report released this week by the Rhodium Group, a private research company, that U.S. emissions — which amount to one-sixth of the planet’s — didn’t drop in 2018 but instead skyrocketed. The 3.4 percent jump in CO2 for 2018, projected by the Rhodium Group, would be second-largest surge in greenhouse gas emissions from the United States since 1996, when Bill Clinton was president.

The report notes that Americans consumed significantly more electricity in 2018 than in years past, and that demand for trucking (think shipping) and jet fuel (lots more people flew) also grew substantially. More alarming are the large jumps in U.S. emissions from industry and from buildings — which the report’s authors note are largely “ignored in clean energy and climate policymaking.” Heating and cooking-related emissions from old, often-inefficient buildings jumped 10 percent, in part due to a growing population and despite a warmer-than-average winter. As manufacturing was buoyed by the strong economy, the emissions the sector produced jumped by nearly 6 percent. The Rhodium Group forecasts those emissions will continue to grow.

Until now, it had seemed we were making modest, if insufficient, progress, largely, many experts declared, as coal-fired power plants were phased out and replaced with natural gas, which burns cleaner out of the smokestack. For two decades, U.S. emissions had been steadily dropping, chipping off more than 1 percent annually in most years since peaking in 2007. But the pace of the decline had been slowing and now threatens to put emissions reduction goals set by the Paris accord — to cut emissions to at least 26 percent less than 2005 levels by 2025 — out of reach.

There are plenty of reasons the Rhodium Group report’s conclusions aren’t particularly surprising. The rate of growth it describes dovetails with what the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicted late last year: a roughly 3 percent rise in CO2 from U.S. sources. As far back as 2015, a flurry of academic research raised questions about whether the drop in U.S. emissions was indeed due to successful efforts to curb them or instead reflected the 2008-09 recession. At least one prominent study concluded that U.S. efforts to reduce emissions resulted mostly from economic decline, not other efforts. Even the increasing emissions from U.S. industries — the metric most cited from this week’s Rhodium Group research — may prove to be a red herring: Economists and climate scientists have long argued that global trade merely outsourced U.S. emissions.

In the meantime, some climate deniers — including some in the Trump administration — have seized on earlier reports of dropping emissions to argue that aggressive U.S. emissions controls aren’t necessary. “The economy is booming, energy production is surging, and we are reducing greenhouse gas emissions from major industrial sources,” acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler wrote last October. “Federal regulations are not necessary to drive CO2 reductions.” That thinking was offered as partial justification for everything from the reversal of the Clean Power Plan to phase out coal-generated electricity to the relaxation of fuel economy standards for cars.

This week’s emissions forecast is a reminder that, as John McArthur, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution recently wrote, “Every new unit of economic gain is still cranking out a corresponding unit of environmental pain.” That may be unlikely to change soon, and the “urgent” challenge for 2019, he writes, is to find palatable approaches to drastic emissions reductions that still allow for the kind of sustained economic growth the nation has been enjoying. Until or unless the economy can be decoupled from the emissions associated with driving it, the fastest way to curb CO2 is to produce — and buy and consume — less.

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EPA’s Abandoned Wyoming Fracking Study One Retreat Of Many

by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica.

When the Environmental Protection Agency abruptly retreated on its multimillion-dollar investigation into water contamination in a central Wyoming natural gas field last month, it shocked environmentalists and energy industry supporters alike.

In 2011, the agency had issued a blockbuster draft report saying that the controversial practice of fracking was to blame for the pollution of an aquifer deep below the town of Pavillion, WY– the first time such a claim had been based on a scientific analysis.

The study drew heated criticism over its methodology and awaited a peer review that promised to settle the dispute. Now the EPA will instead hand the study over to the state of Wyoming, whose research will be funded by EnCana, the very drilling company whose wells may have caused the contamination.

Industry advocates say the EPA’s turnabout reflects an overdue recognition that it had over-reached on fracking and that its science was critically flawed.

But environmentalists see an agency that is systematically disengaging from any research that could be perceived as questioning the safety of fracking or oil drilling, even as President Obama lays out a plan to combat climate change that rests heavily on the use of natural gas.

Over the past 15 months, they point out, the EPA has:

—Closed an investigation into groundwater pollution in Dimock, PA, saying the level of contamination was below federal safety triggers.

—Abandoned its claim that a driller in Parker County, TX, was responsible for methane gas bubbling up in residents’ faucets, even though a geologist hired by the agency confirmed this finding.

—Sharply revised downward a 2010 estimate showing that leaking gas from wells and pipelines was contributing to climate change, crediting better pollution controls by the drilling industry even as other reports indicate the leaks may be larger than previously thought.

—Failed to enforce a statutory ban on using diesel fuel in fracking.

“We’re seeing a pattern that is of great concern,” said Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington. “They need to make sure that scientific investigations are thorough enough to ensure that the public is getting a full scientific explanation.”

The EPA says that the string of decisions is not related, and the Pavillion matter will be resolved more quickly by state officials. The agency has maintained publicly that it remains committed to an ongoing national study of hydraulic fracturing, which it says will draw the definitive line on fracking’s risks to water.

In private conversations, however, high-ranking agency officials acknowledge that fierce pressure from the drilling industry and its powerful allies on Capitol Hill — as well as financial constraints and a delicate policy balance sought by the White House — is squelching their ability to scrutinize not only the effects of oil and gas drilling, but other environmental protections as well.

Last year, the agency’s budget was sliced 17 percent, to below-1998 levels. Sequestration forced further cuts, making research initiatives like the one in Pavillion harder to fund.

One reflection of the intense political spotlight on the agency: In May, Senate Republicans boycotted a vote on President Obama’s nominee to head the EPA, Gina McCarthy, after asking her to answer more than 1,000 questions on regulatory and policy concerns, including energy.

The Pavillion study touched a particular nerve for Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), the former ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee.

According to correspondence obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Inhofe demanded repeated briefings from EPA officials on fracking initiatives and barraged the agency with questions on its expenditures in Pavillion, down to how many dollars it paid a lab to check water samples for a particular contaminant.

He also wrote a letter to the EPA’s top administrator calling a draft report that concluded fracking likely helped pollute Pavillion’s drinking water “unsubstantiated” and pillorying it as part of an “administration-wide effort to hinder and unnecessarily regulate hydraulic fracturing on the federal level.” He called for the EPA’s inspector general to open an investigation into the agency’s actions related to fracking.

When the EPA announced it would end its research in Pavillion, Inhofe — whose office did not respond to questions from ProPublica — was quick to applaud.

“EPA thought it had a rock-solid case linking groundwater contamination to hydraulic fracturing in Pavillion, WY, but we knew all along that the science was not there,” Inhofe said in a press release issued the day of the announcement.

Others, however, wonder whether a gun-shy EPA is capable of answering the pressing question of whether the nation’s natural gas boom will also bring a wave of environmental harm.

“The EPA has just put a ‘kick me’ sign on it,” John Hanger, a Democratic candidate for governor in Pennsylvania and the former secretary of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, wrote on his blog in response to the EPA news about Pavillion. “Its critics from all quarters will now oblige.”

**

Before fracking became the subject of a high-stakes national debate, federal agencies appeared to be moving aggressively to study whether the drilling technique was connected to mounting complaints of water pollution and health problems near well sites nationwide.

As some states began to strengthen regulations for fracking, the federal government prepared to issue rules for how wells would be fracked on lands it directly controlled.

The EPA also launched prominent scientific studies in Texas, Wyoming and Pennsylvania, stepping into each case after residents voiced concerns that state environmental agencies had not properly examined problems.

The EPA probe in Pavillion began in 2008 with the aim of determining whether the town’s water was safe to drink. The area was first drilled in 1960 and had been the site of extensive natural gas development since the 1990s. Starting at about the same time, residents had complained of physical ailments and said their drinking water was black and tasted of chemicals.

The EPA conducted four rounds of sampling, first testing the water from more than 40 homes and later drilling two deep wells to test water from layers of earth that chemicals from farming and old oil and gas waste pits were unlikely to reach.

The sampling revealed oil, methane, arsenic, and metals including copper and vanadium — as well as other compounds — in shallow water wells. It also detected a trace of an obscure compound linked to materials used in fracking, called 2-butoxyethanol phosphate (2-BEp).

The deep-well tests showed benzene, at 50 times the level that is considered safe for people, as well as phenols — another dangerous human carcinogen — acetone, toluene, naphthalene and traces of diesel fuel, which seemed to show that man-made pollutants had found their way deep into the cracks of the earth. In all, EPA detected 13 different compounds in the deep aquifer that it said were often used with hydraulic fracturing processes, including 2-Butoxyethanol, a close relation to the 2-BEp found near the surface.[1]

The agency issued a draft report in 2011 stating that while some of the pollution in the shallow water wells was likely the result of seepage from old waste pits nearby, the array of chemicals found in the deep test wells was “the result of direct mixing of hydraulic fracturing fluids with ground water in the Pavillion gas field.”

The report triggered a hailstorm of criticism not only from the drilling industry, but from state oil and gas regulators, who disagreed with the EPA’s interpretation of its data. They raised serious questions about the EPA’s methodology and the materials they used, postulating that contaminants found in deep-well samples could have been put there by the agency itself in the testing process.

In response, the EPA agreed to more testing and repeatedly extended the comment period on its study, delaying the peer review process.

Agency officials insist their data was correct, but the EPA’s decision to withdraw from Pavillion means the peer-review process won’t go forward and the findings in the draft report will never become final.

“We stand by what our data said,” an EPA spokesperson told ProPublica after the June 20 announcement, “but I do think there is a difference between data and conclusions.”

Wyoming officials say they will launch another year-long investigation to reach their own conclusions about Pavillion’s water.

Meanwhile, local residents remain suspended in a strange limbo.

While controversy has swirled around the deep well test results — and critics have hailed the agency’s retreat as an admission that it could not defend its science — the shallow well contamination and waste pits have been all but forgotten.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the federal government’s main agency for evaluating health risk from pollution, has advised Pavillion residents not to bathe in, cook with, or drink the water flowing from their taps. Some have reported worsening health conditions they suspect are related to the pollution. They are being provided temporary drinking water from the state in large cisterns.

**

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.

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 — 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 — and perhaps the pressure of fracking — 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, TX, 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…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.

The EPA issued an “imminent and substantial endangerment order” forcing Range Resources, the company it suspected of being responsible, to take immediate action to address the contamination.

But once again, the EPA’s actions ignited an explosive response from the oil and gas industry, and a sharp rebuke from Texas state officials, who insisted that their own data and analysis proved Range had done no harm.

According to the environmental news site Energy Wire, Ed Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania, whose law firm lobbies on behalf of energy companies, also took up Range’s case with then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

Internal EPA emails used in the Energy Wire report and also obtained by ProPublica discuss Rendell’s meeting with Jackson, though Range has denied it employed Rendell to argue on its behalf. Neither the EPA nor Rendell responded to a request for comment on the Parker County case.

In March 2012, the EPA dropped its case against Range without explanation. Its administrator in Texas at the time had been assailed for making comments that seemed to show an anti-industry bias. He subsequently lost his job. An Associated Press investigation found that the EPA abandoned its inquiry after Range threatened not to cooperate with the EPA on its other drilling-related research.

Agency critics see a lack of will, rather than a lack of evidence, in the EPA’s approach in Parker County and elsewhere.

“It would be one thing if these were isolated incidents,” said Alan Septoff, communications director for Earthworks, an environmental group opposed to fracking. “But every time the EPA has come up with something damning, somehow, something magically has occurred to have them walk it back.”

**

So where does this leave the EPA’s remaining research into the effects of fracking?

The agency has joined with the Department of Energy, U.S. Geological Survey and the Department of Interior to study the environmental risks of developing unconventional fuels such as shale gas, but those involved in the collaboration say that little has happened.

That leaves the EPA’s highly anticipated national study on hydraulic fracturing.

When the EPA announced it was ending its research in Pavillion, it pointed to this study as a “major research program.”

“The agency will look to the results of this program as the basis for its scientific conclusions and recommendations on hydraulic fracturing,” it said in a statement issued in partnership with Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead.

That national study will concentrate on five case studies in Pennsylvania, Texas, North Dakota and Colorado.

It will not, however, focus on Pavillion, Parker County or Dimock.

Nor will it devote much attention to places like Sublette County, WY, where state and federal agencies have found both aquifer contamination and that drilling has caused dangerous levels of emissions and ozone pollution.

It will be a long time before the EPA’s national study can inform the debate over fracking. While the agency has promised a draft by late 2014, it warned last month that no one should expect to read the final version before sometime in 2016, the last full year of President Obama’s term.

Photo: Mike McSharry via Flickr.com

Poisoning The Well: How The Feds Let Industry Pollute The Nation’s Underground Water Supply

by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica.

Federal officials have given energy and mining companies permission to pollute aquifers in more than 1,500 places across the country, releasing toxic material into underground reservoirs that help supply more than half of the nation’s drinking water.

In many cases, the Environmental Protection Agency has granted these so-called aquifer exemptions in Western states now stricken by drought and increasingly desperate for water.

EPA records show that portions of at least 100 drinking water aquifers have been written off because exemptions have allowed them to be used as dumping grounds.

“You are sacrificing these aquifers,” said Mark Williams, a hydrologist at the University of Colorado and a member of a National Science Foundation team studying the effects of energy development on the environment. “By definition, you are putting pollution into them. … If you are looking 50 to 100 years down the road, this is not a good way to go.”

As part of an investigation into the threat to water supplies from underground injection of waste, ProPublica set out to identify which aquifers have been polluted.

We found the EPA has not even kept track of exactly how many exemptions it has issued, where they are, or whom they might affect.

What records the agency was able to supply under the Freedom of Information Act show that exemptions are often issued in apparent conflict with the EPA’s mandate to protect waters that may be used for drinking.

Though hundreds of exemptions are for lower-quality water of questionable use, many allow grantees to contaminate water so pure it would barely need filtration, or that is treatable using modern technology.

The EPA is only supposed to issue exemptions if aquifers are too remote, too dirty, or too deep to supply affordable drinking water. Applicants must persuade the government that the water is not being used as drinking water and that it never will be.

Sometimes, however, the agency has issued permits for portions of reservoirs that are in use, assuming contaminants will stay within the finite area exempted.

In Wyoming, people are drawing on the same water source for drinking, irrigation and livestock that, about a mile away, is being fouled with federal permission. In Texas, EPA officials are evaluating an exemption for a uranium mine — already approved by the state — even though numerous homes draw water from just outside the underground boundaries outlined in the mining company’s application.

The EPA declined repeated requests for interviews for this story, but sent a written response saying exemptions have been issued responsibly, under a process that ensures contaminants remain confined.

“Aquifer Exemptions identify those waters that do not currently serve as a source of drinking water and will not serve as a source of drinking water in the future and, thus, do not need to be protected,” an EPA spokesperson wrote in an email statement. “The process of exempting aquifers includes steps that minimize the possibility that future drinking water supplies are endangered.”

Yet EPA officials say the agency has quietly assembled an unofficial internal task force to re-evaluate its aquifer exemption policies. The agency’s spokesperson declined to give details on the group’s work, but insiders say it is attempting to inventory exemptions and to determine whether aquifers should go unprotected in the future, with the value of water rising along with demand for exemptions closer to areas where people live.

Advances in geological sciences have deepened regulators’ concerns about exemptions, challenging the notion that waste injected underground will stay inside the tightly drawn boundaries of the exempted areas.

“What they don’t often consider is whether that waste will flow outside that zone of influence over time, and there is no doubt that it will,” said Mike Wireman, a senior hydrologist with the EPA who has worked with the World Bank on global water supply issues. “Over decades, that water could discharge into a stream. It could seep into a well. If you are a rancher out there and you want to put a well in, it’s difficult to find out if there is an exempted aquifer underneath your property.”

Aquifer exemptions are a little-known aspect of the government’s Underground Injection Control program, which is designed to protect water supplies from the underground disposal of waste.

The Safe Drinking Water Act explicitly prohibits injection into a source of drinking water, and requires precautions to ensure that oil and gas and disposal wells that run through them are carefully engineered not to leak.

Areas covered by exemptions are stripped of some of these protections, however. Waste can be discarded into them freely, and wells that run through them need not meet all standards used to prevent pollution. In many cases, no water monitoring or long-term study is required.

The recent surge in domestic drilling and rush for uranium has brought a spike in exemption applications, as well as political pressure not to block or delay them, EPA officials told ProPublica.

“The energy policy in the U.S is keeping this from happening because right now nobody — nobody — wants to interfere with the development of oil and gas or uranium,” said a senior EPA employee who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject. “The political pressure is huge not to slow that down.”

Many of the exemption permits, records show, have been issued in regions where water is needed most and where intense political debates are underway to decide how to fairly allocate limited water resources.

In drought-stricken Texas, communities are looking to treat brackish aquifers beneath the surface because they have run out of better options and several cities, including San Antonio and El Paso, are considering whether to build new desalinization plants for as much as $100 million apiece.

And yet environmental officials have granted more than 50 exemptions for waste disposal and uranium mining in Texas, records show. The most recent was issued in September.

The Texas Railroad Commission, the state agency that regulates oil and gas drilling, said it issued additional exemptions, covering large swaths of aquifers underlying the state, when it brought its rules into compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act in 1982. This was in large part because officials viewed them as oil reservoirs and thought they were already contaminated. But it is unclear where, and how extensive, those exemptions are.

EPA “Region VI received a road map — yes, the kind they used to give free at gas stations — with the aquifers delineated, with no detail on depth,” said Mario Salazar, a former EPA project engineer who worked with the underground injection program for 25 years and oversaw the approval of Texas’ program, in an email.

In California, where nearly half of the nation’s fruits and vegetables are grown with water from as far away as the Colorado River, the perennially cash-strapped state’s governor is proposing to spend $14 billion to divert more of the Sacramento River from the north to the south. Near Bakersfield, a private project is underway to build a water bank, essentially an artificial aquifer.

Still, more than 100 exemptions for natural aquifers have been granted in California, some to dispose of drilling and fracking waste in the state’s driest parts. Though most date back to the 1980s, the most recent exemption was approved in 2009 in Kern County, an agricultural heartland that is the epicenter of some of the state’s most volatile rivalries over water.

The balance is even more delicate in Colorado. Growth in the Denver metro area has been stubbornly restrained not by available land, but by the limits of aquifers that have been drawn down by as much as 300 vertical feet. Much of Eastern Colorado’s water has long been piped underneath the Continental Divide and, until recently, the region was mulling a $3 billion plan to build a pipeline to bring water hundreds of miles from western Wyoming.

Along with Wyoming, Montana and Utah, however, Colorado has sacrificed more of its aquifer resources than any other part of the country.

More than 1,100 aquifer exemptions have been approved by the EPA’s Rocky Mountain regional office, according to a list the agency provided to ProPublica. Many of them are relatively shallow and some are in the same geologic formations containing aquifers relied on by Denver metro residents, though the boundaries are several hundred miles away. More than a dozen exemptions are in waters that might not even need to be treated in order to drink.

“It’s short-sighted,” said Tom Curtis, the deputy executive director of the American Water Works Association, an international non-governmental drinking water organization. “It’s something that future generations may question.”

To the resource industries, aquifer exemptions are essential. Oil and gas drilling waste has to go somewhere and in certain parts of the country, there are few alternatives to injecting it into porous rock that also contains water, drilling companies say. In many places, the same layers of rock that contain oil or gas also contain water, and that water is likely to already contain pollutants such as benzene from the natural hydrocarbons within it.

Similarly, the uranium mining industry works by prompting chemical reactions that separate out minerals within the aquifers themselves; the mining can’t happen without the pollution.

When regulations governing waste injection were written in the 1980s to protect underground water reserves, industry sought the exemptions as a compromise. The intent was to acknowledge that many deep waters might not be worth protecting even though they technically met the definition of drinking water.

“The concept of aquifer exemptions was something that we ‘invented’ to address comments when the regulations were first proposed,” Salazar, the former EPA official, said. “There was never the intention to exempt aquifers just because they could contain, or would obviate, the development of a resource. Water was the resource that would be protected above all.”

Since then, however, approving exemptions has become the norm. In an email, the EPA said that some exemption applications had been denied, but provided no details about how many or which ones. State regulators in Texas and Wyoming could not recall a single application that had been turned down and industry representatives said they had come to expect swift approval.

“Historically they have been fairly routinely granting aquifer exemptions,” said Richard Clement, the chief executive of Powertech Uranium, which is currently seeking permits for new mining in South Dakota. “There has never been a case that I’m aware of that it has not been done.”

In 1981, shortly after the first exemption rules were set, the EPA lowered the bar for exemptions as part of settling a lawsuit filed by the American Petroleum Institute. Since then, the agency has issued permits for water not “reasonably expected” to be used for drinking. The original language allowed exemptions only for water that could never be used.

Oil companies have been the biggest users of aquifer exemptions by far. Most are held by smaller, independent companies, but Chevron, America’s second-largest oil company, holds at least 28 aquifer exemptions. Exxon holds at least 14. In Wyoming, the Canadian oil giant EnCana, currently embroiled in an investigation of water contamination related to fracking in the town of Pavillion, has been allowed to inject into aquifers at 38 sites.

Once an exemption is issued, it’s all but permanent; none have ever been reversed. Permits dictate how much material companies can inject and where, but impose little or no obligations to protect the surrounding water if it has been exempted. The EPA and state environmental agencies require applicants to assess the quality of reservoirs and to do some basic modeling to show where contaminants should end up. But in most cases there is no obligation, for example, to track what has been put into the earth or — except in the case of the uranium mines — to monitor where it does end up.

The biggest problem now, experts say, is that the EPA’s criteria for evaluating applications are outdated. The rules — last revised nearly three decades ago — haven’t adapted to improving water treatment technology and don’t reflect the changing value and scarcity of fresh water.

Aquifers once considered unusable can now be processed for drinking water at a reasonable price.

The law defines an underground source of drinking water as any water that has less than 10,000 parts per million of what are called Total Dissolved Solids, a standard measure of water quality, but historically, water with more than 3,000 TDS has been dismissed as too poor for drinking. It also has been taken for granted that, in most places, the deeper the aquifer —say, below about 2,000 feet—the higher the TDS and the less salvageable the water.

Yet today, Texas towns are treating water that has as high as 4,000 TDS and a Wyoming town is pumping from 8,500 feet deep, thousands of feet below aquifers that the EPA has determined were too far underground to ever produce useable water.

“You can just about treat anything nowadays,” said Jorge Arroyo, an engineer and director of innovative water technologies at the Texas Water Development Board, which advises the state on groundwater management. Arroyo said he was unaware that so many Texas aquifers had been exempted, and that it would be feasible to treat many of them. Regarding the exemptions, he said, “With the advent of technology to treat some of this water, I think this is a prudent time to reconsider whether we allow them.”

Now, as commercial crops wilt in the dry heat and winds rip the dust loose from American prairies, questions are mounting about whether the EPA should continue to grant exemptions going forward.

“Unless someone can build a clear case that this water cannot be used — we need to keep our groundwater clean,” said Al Armendariz, a former regional administrator for the EPA’s South Central region who now works with the Sierra Club. “We shouldn’t be exempting aquifers unless we have no other choice. We should only exempt the aquifer if we are sure we are never going to use the water again.”

Still, skeptics say fewer exemptions are unlikely, despite rising concern about them within the EPA, as the demand for space underground continues to grow. Long-term plans to slow climate change and clean up coal by sequestering carbon dioxide underground, for example, could further endanger aquifers, causing chemical reactions that lead to water contamination.

“Everyone wants clean water and everyone wants clean energy,” said Richard Healy, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey whose work is focused on the nexus of energy production and water. “Energy development can occur very quickly because there is a lot of money involved. Environmental studies take longer.”

Photo by “tyo” via Flickr.com

 

Latest Sanction Against BP Goes Beyond Gulf Spill

by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica

When the Obama administration temporarily banned BP from federal contracts Wednesday, it pointed to BP’s “lack of business integrity” and conduct relating to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill.

The sanction, however, has been years in the making.

BP has been criminally convicted in four previous cases — including a 2005 explosion in Texas that killed 15 workers — and the EPA has been considering broader debarment proceedings against the company since at least 2005. The agency had actually been nearing a decision on a contract ban in January 2010, just a few months before the Deepwater Horizon tragedy unfolded, killing 11 workers and sending more than 200 million gallons of oil into the sea.

“This is not just about the Deepwater Horizon, but about a whole lot of things and a whole lot of parts of BP,” said a former government official familiar with the debarment process. “It wasn’t just narrowly scoped… they are looking at it as a systemic corporate-wide issue.”

A limited suspension of government contracts for a specific facility or subsidiary operations, called suspension and debarment, is standard practice after a criminal conviction.

BP pleaded guilty on Nov. 15 to federal criminal charges of manslaughter and lying to Congress and agreed to pay more than $4 billion in fines relating to the Deepwater Horizon accident. Three of the company’s managers have also been criminally charged.

But the broad sanctions announced Wednesday target the BP corporation writ large — the British-based parent company and 21 international subsidiaries are included — and reflect a mistrust for BP’s operations that has been growing over more than a decade.

In this case, experts close to the case say, the timing of the government’s announcement was significant.

It came just hours before the government sold new rights to drill in the Gulf of the Mexico and seems intended to prevent BP, the largest leaseholder in the Gulf, from expanding its operations there until all of its problems are resolved.

“Suspensions are always timed to prevent something from happening,” said Jeanne Pascal, a former EPA debarment attorney who led the government’s investigation into BP from 1997 until she retired in 2010.

“A debarment says you have chronic bad behavior, and we think you present chronic risk for the government and that you will continue this behavior,” said Pascal. “The immediate need was the issuance of new leases (Wednesday) in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Wednesday’s actions represent the government’s effort to protect its fiscal resources and protect the public economic interest by not using taxpayer money to support actions that could cost the government more money later on.

After several past BP accidents, including two oil spills in Alaska and close calls at several U.S. refineries, private consultants and government investigators have pointed to wide-ranging problems within the company’s culture. The critics have warned that BP has consistently prioritized speed and profit-making over safety and regulatory compliance.

The type of suspension ordered Wednesday is a part of what the government calls a “discretionary” debarment, which means it is considering this broader “corporate culture of noncompliance” and longer history.

While the EPA is the lead agency, its debarment decision affects the Department of Interior and Department of Defense, among other agencies. BP is among the U.S.’s largest corporate contractors and supplies more than $1 billion a year worth of fuel to the military.

The temporary suspension order issued Wednesday is the first step in a still-to-be-made decision about whether BP should be formally debarred, or banned entirely from contracts for a specified length of time.

For now, EPA officials tell ProPublica that the suspension could last anywhere from two to 18 months, depending on the final terms of the Department of Justice’s plea agreement with BP. If the civil suits against BP remain unresolved, the suspension could stay in place longer.

As part of its criminal plea announced earlier this month, BP agreed to hire ethics and safety monitors for its Gulf operations and regularly evaluate its facilities for safety and environmental compliance. If the court approves the plea agreement, those terms would become a part of BP’s probation, and thus a term of the suspension and debarment proceedings, an EPA spokesperson told ProPublica.

A spokesperson assigned to speak on behalf of BP told ProPublica that the company had not intended to bid on new Gulf leases in Wednesday’s sale, and was not aware of the EPA’s suspension decision until after their bids were due. But a Nov. 15 press release and filings with the SEC both suggest the company knew a ban could be coming.

BP was not explicitly banned from participating in the sale of new rights to drill in western Gulf of Mexico waters Wednesday, but would not have been allowed to win any leases if it had competed for them, a Department of Interior official said.

Since the 2010 spill in the Gulf, the government has granted BP more than 50 new leases in the Gulf of Mexico. BP is the single largest investor and leaseholder in the Gulf, where it currently operates seven drilling rigs.

“BP has invested more than $52 billion in the United States,” the company said in a statement, “more than any other oil and gas company and more than it invests in any other country.” It emphasized that it employs 23,000 people in the U.S. and said it supports nearly a quarter of a million American jobs.

So far, BP has spent more than $14 billion on cleanup and settlement costs related to the Gulf spill, and expects to pay more than $37 billion — including in criminal and civil settlements — by the time it is finished. In addition, the company has stated a renewed focus on safety and reorganized its corporate operations to increase safety and environmental accountability.

“I believe BP is genuine and sincere” in its efforts, said Tommy Beaudreau, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, in a press conference held Wednesday after the government’s lease sale.

BP also emphasized that it is working speedily towards a resolution with the government.

“BP has been in regular dialogue with the EPA and has already provided both a present responsibility statement of more than 100 pages and supplemental answers to the EPA’s questions,” it said in a statement. “The EPA has informed BP that it is preparing a proposed administrative agreement that, if agreed upon, would effectively resolve and lift this temporary suspension.”

Suevon Lee contributed reporting to this story.

Photo credit: AP/U.S. Coast Guard, File

New Study: Fluids From Marcellus Shale Likely Seeping Into Pennsylvania Drinking Water

by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica.

New research has concluded that salty, mineral-rich fluids deep beneath Pennsylvania’s natural gas fields are likely seeping upward thousands of feet into drinking water supplies.

Though the fluids were natural and not the byproduct of drilling or hydraulic fracturing, the finding further stokes the red-hot controversy over fracking in the Marcellus Shale, suggesting that drilling waste and chemicals could migrate in ways previously thought to be impossible.

The study, conducted by scientists at Duke University and California State Polytechnic University at Pomona and released today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tested drinking water wells and aquifers across Northeastern Pennsylvania. Researchers found that, in some cases, the water had mixed with brine that closely matched brine thought to be from the Marcellus Shale or areas close to it.

No drilling chemicals were detected in the water, and there was no correlation between where the natural brine was detected and where drilling takes place.

Still, the brine’s presence — and the finding that it moved over thousands of vertical feet — contradicts the oft-repeated notion that deeply buried rock layers will always seal in material injected underground through drilling, mining, or underground disposal.

“The biggest implication is the apparent presence of connections from deep underground to the surface,” said Robert Jackson, a biology professor at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University and one of the study’s authors. “It’s a suggestion based on good evidence that there are places that may be more at risk.”

The study is the second in recent months to find that the geology surrounding the Marcellus Shale could allow contaminants to move more freely than expected. A paper published by the journal Ground Water in April used modeling to predict that contaminants could reach the surface within 100 years — or fewer if the ground is fracked.

Last year, some of the same Duke researchers found that methane gas was far more likely to leak into water supplies in places adjacent to drilling.

Today’s research swiftly drew criticism from both the oil and gas industry and a scientist on the National Academy of Science’s peer review panel. They called the science flawed, in part because the researchers do not know how long it may have taken for the brine to leak. The National Academy of Sciences should not have published the article without an accompanying rebuttal, they said.

“What you have here is another case of a paper whose actual findings are pretty benign, but one that, in the current environment, may be vulnerable to distortion among those who oppose this industry,” said Chris Tucker, a spokesman for the gas industry trade group Energy In Depth. “What’s controversial is attempting to argue that these migrations occur as a result of industry activities, and on a time scale that actually matters to humanity.”

Another critic, Penn State University geologist Terry Engelder, took the unusual step of disclosing details of his review of the paper for the National Academy of Sciences, normally a private process.

In a letter written to the researchers and provided to ProPublica, Engelder said the study had the appearance of “science-based advocacy” and said it was “unwittingly written to enflame the anti-drilling crowd.”

In emails, Engelder told ProPublica that he did not dispute the basic premise of the article — that fluids seemed to have migrated thousands of feet upward. But he said that they had likely come from even deeper than the Marcellus — a layer 15,000 feet below the surface — and that there was no research to determine what pathways the fluids travelled or how long they took to migrate. He also said the Marcellus was an unlikely source of the brine because it does not contain much water.

“There is a question of time scale and what length of time matters,” Engelder wrote in his review. In a subsequent letter to the Academy’s editors protesting the study, he wrote that “the implication is that the Marcellus is leaking now, naturally without any human assistance, and that if water-based fluid is injected into these cross-formational pathways, that leakage, which is already ‘contaminating’ the aquifers with salt, could be made much worse.”

Indeed, while the study did not explicitly focus on fracking, the article acknowledged the implications. “The coincidence of elevated salinity in shallow groundwater… suggests that these areas could be at greater risk of contamination from shale gas development because of a preexisting network of cross-formational pathways that has enhanced hydraulic connectivity to deeper geological formations,” the paper states.

For their research, the scientists collected 426 recent and historical water samples — combining their own testing with government records from the 1980s — from shallow water wells and analyzed them for brine, comparing their chemical makeup to that of 83 brine samples unearthed as waste water from drilling sites in the Marcellus Shale.

Nearly one out of six recent water samples contained brine near-identical to Marcellus-layer brine water.

Nevertheless, Jackson, one of the study’s authors, said he still considers it unlikely that frack fluids and injected man-made waste are migrating into drinking water supplies. If that were happening, those contaminants would be more likely to appear in his groundwater samples, he said. His group is continuing its research into how the natural brine might have travelled, and how long it took to rise to the surface.

“There is a real time uncertainty,” he said. “We don’t know if this happens over a couple of years, or over millennia.”

New Study Predicts Frack Fluids Can Migrate to Aquifers Within Years

by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica

A new study has raised fresh concerns about the safety of gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, concluding that fracking chemicals injected into the ground could migrate toward drinking water supplies far more quickly than experts have previously predicted.

More than 5,000 wells were drilled in the Marcellus between mid-2009 and mid-2010, according to the study, which was published in the journal Ground Water two weeks ago. Operators inject up to 4 million gallons of fluid, under more than 10,000 pounds of pressure, to drill and frack each well.

Scientists have theorized that impermeable layers of rock would keep the fluid, which contains benzene and other dangerous chemicals, safely locked nearly a mile below water supplies. This view of the earth’s underground geology is a cornerstone of the industry’s argument that fracking poses minimal threats to the environment.

But the study, using computer modeling, concluded that natural faults and fractures in the Marcellus, exacerbated by the effects of fracking itself, could allow chemicals to reach the surface in as little as “just a few years.”

“Simply put, [the rock layers] are not impermeable,” said the study’s author, Tom Myers, an independent hydrogeologist whose clients include the federal government and environmental groups.

“The Marcellus shale is being fracked into a very high permeability,” he said. “Fluids could move from most any injection process.”

The research for the study was paid for by Catskill Mountainkeeper and the Park Foundation, two upstate New York organizations that have opposed gas drilling and fracking in the Marcellus.

Much of the debate about the environmental risks of gas drilling has centered on the risk that spills could pollute surface water or that structural failures would cause wells to leak.

Though some scientists believed it was possible for fracking to contaminate underground water supplies, those risks have been considered secondary. The study in Ground Water is the first peer-reviewed research evaluating this possibility.

The study did not use sampling or case histories to assess contamination risks. Rather, it used software and computer modeling to predict how fracking fluids would move over time. The simulations sought to account for the natural fractures and faults in the underground rock formations and the effects of fracking.

The models predict that fracking will dramatically speed up the movement of chemicals injected into the ground. Fluids traveled distances within 100 years that would take tens of thousands of years under natural conditions. And when the models factored in the Marcellus’ natural faults and fractures, fluids could move 10 times as fast as that.

Where man-made fractures intersect with natural faults, or break out of the Marcellus layer into the stone layer above it, the study found, “contaminants could reach the surface areas in tens of years, or less.”

The study also concluded that the force that fracking exerts does not immediately let up when the process ends. It can take nearly a year to ease.

As a result, chemicals left underground are still being pushed away from the drill site long after drilling is finished. It can take five or six years before the natural balance of pressure in the underground system is fully restored, the study found.

Myers’ research focused exclusively on the Marcellus, but he said his findings may have broader relevance. Many regions where oil and gas is being drilled have more permeable underground environments than the one he analyzed, he said.

“One would have to say that the possible travel times for a similar thing in Arkansas or Northeast Texas is probably faster than what I’ve come up with,” Myers said.

Ground Water is the journal of the National Ground Water Association, a non-profit group that represents scientists, engineers and businesses in the groundwater industry.

Several scientists called Myers’ approach unsophisticated and said that the assumptions he used for his models didn’t reflect what they knew about the geology of the Marcellus Shale. If fluids could flow as quickly as Myers asserts, said Terry Engelder, a professor of geosciences at Penn State University who has been a proponent of shale development, fracking wouldn’t be necessary to open up the gas deposits.

“This would be a huge fracture porosity,” Engelder said. “So I read this and I say, ‘Golly, does this guy really understand anything about what these shales look like?’ The concern then arises from using a model rather than observations.”

Myers likened the shale to a cracked window, saying that samples showing it didn’t contain fractures were small in size and were akin to only examining an intact section of glass, while a broader, scaled out view would capture the faults and fractures that could leak.

Both scientists agreed that direct evidence of fluid migration is needed, but little sampling has been done to analyze where fracking fluids go after being injected underground.

Myers says monitoring systems could be installed around gas well sites to measure for changes in water quality, a measure required for some gold mines, for example. Until that happens, Myers said, theoretical modeling has to substitute for hard data.

“We were trying to use the basic concepts of groundwater and hydrology and geology and say can this happen?” he said. “And that had basically never been done.”

A Punishment BP Can’t Pay Off

by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica

 

Two years after a series of gambles and ill-advised decisions on a BP drilling project led to the largest accidental oil spill in United States history and the death of 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, no one has been held accountable.

Sure, there have been about $8 billion in payouts and, in early March, the outlines of a civil agreement that will cost BP, the company ultimately responsible, another $7.8 billion in restitution to businesses and residents along the Gulf of Mexico. It’s also true the company has paid at least $14 billion more in cleanup and other costs since the accident began on April 20, 2010, bringing the expense of this fiasco to about $30 billion for BP. These are huge numbers. But this is a huge and profitable corporation.

What is missing is the accountability that comes from real consequences: a criminal prosecution that holds responsible the individuals who gambled with the lives of BP’s contractors and the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico. Only such an outcome can rebuild trust in an oil industry that asks for the public’s faith so that it can drill more along the nation’s coastlines. And perhaps only such an outcome can keep BP in line and can keep an accident like the Deepwater Horizon disaster from happening again.

BP has already tested the effectiveness of lesser consequences, and its track record proves that the most severe punishments the courts and the United States government have been willing to mete out amount to a slap on the wrist.

Prior to the gulf blowout, which spilled 200 million gallons of oil, BP was convicted of two felony environmental crimes and a misdemeanor: after it failed to report that its contractors were dumping toxic waste in Alaska in 1995; after its refinery in Texas City, Texas, exploded, killing 15, in 2005; and after it spilled more than 200,000 gallons of crude oil from a corroded pipeline onto the Alaskan tundra in 2006. In all, more than 30 people employed directly or indirectly by BP have died in connection with these and other recent accidents.

In at least two of those cases, the company had been warned of human and environmental dangers, deliberated the consequences and then ignored them, according to my reporting.

None of the upper-tier executives who managed BP — John Browne and Tony Hayward among them — were malicious. Their decisions, however, were driven by money. Neither their own sympathies nor the stark risks in their operations — corroding pipelines, dysfunctional safety valves, disarmed fire alarms and so on — could compete with the financial necessities of profit making.

Before the accident in Texas City, BP had declined to spend $150,000 to fix a part of the system that allowed gasoline to spew into the air and blow up. Documents show that the company had calculated the cost of a human life to be $10 million. Shortly before that disaster, a senior plant manager warned BP’s London headquarters that the plant was unsafe and a disaster was imminent. A report from early 2005 predicted that BP’s refinery would kill someone “within the next 12 to 18 months” unless it changed its practices.

Such explicit flirtation with deadly risk was undertaken as part of Mr. Browne’s effort while chief executive to expand BP as quickly as possible. Mr. Browne relentlessly cut costs, including on maintenance and safety. Then he hastily assembled a series of acquisitions and mergers between 1998 and 2001 that added tens of thousands of employees, blurred chains of command and wrought chaos on his operations. His methods — and the demands of Wall Street — became overly dependent on quantitative measures of success at the expense of environmental and human risk.

After each disaster, Mr. Browne pledged to refresh his focus on safety, investment in maintenance and commitment to the environment. His successor, Mr. Hayward, followed suit, saying that BP’s culture had to change. But the Deepwater Horizon tragedy — which bears many of the same traits as the company’s past accidents — shows how difficult it has been for the company’s leaders to shift BP’s corporate values and live up to their promises.

The question becomes: did they try hard enough, and did the mechanisms of oversight, regulation and law enforcement work sufficiently to provide a recidivist organization the deterrent that could guarantee its compliance?

After its previous convictions, BP paid unprecedented fines — more than $70 million — and committed to spend at least another $800 million on maintenance to improve safety. The point was to demonstrate that the cost of doing business wrong far outweighs the cost of doing business right. But without personal accountability, the fines become just another cost of doing business, William Miller, a former investigator for the Environmental Protection Agency who was involved in the Texas City case, told me.

The problem then (and perhaps now) is that it is the slow pileup of factors that cause an industrial disaster. Poor decisions are usually made incrementally by a range of people with differing levels of responsibility, and almost always behind a shield of plausible deniability. It makes it almost impossible to pin one clear-cut bad call on a single manager, which is partly why no BP official has ever been held criminally accountable.

Instead, the corporation is held accountable. It isn’t clear that charging the company repeatedly with misdemeanors and felonies has accomplished anything.

At more than $30 billion and climbing, the amount BP has paid out so far for reparations, lawsuits and cleanup dwarfs the roughly $8 billion that Exxon had to pay after its 1989 spill in Prince William Sound in Alaska. And BP will likely still pay billions more before this is finished.

And yet it is not enough. Two years after analysts questioned whether the extraordinary cost and loss of confidence might drive BP out of business, it has come roaring back. It collected more than $375 billion in 2011, pocketing $26 billion in profits.

What the gulf spill has taught us is that no matter how bad the disaster (and the environmental impact), the potential consequences have never been large enough to dissuade BP from placing profits ahead of prudence. That might change if a real person was forced to take responsibility — or if the government brought down one of the biggest hammers in its arsenal and banned the company from future federal oil leases and permits altogether. Fines just don’t matter.

This story was published as an op-ed in The New York Times.

 

Feds Link Water Contamination To Fracking For The First Time

by Abrahm Lustgarten and Nicholas Kusnetz, ProPublica, Dec. 8, 2011, 8:18 p.m.

In a first, federal environment officials today scientifically linked underground water pollution with hydraulic fracturing, concluding that contaminants found in central Wyoming were likely caused by the gas drilling process.

The findings by the Environmental Protection Agency come partway through a separate national study by the agency to determine whether fracking presents a risk to water resources.

In the 121-page draft report released today, EPA officials said that the contamination near the town of Pavillion, Wyo., had most likely seeped up from gas wells and contained at least 10 compounds known to be used in frack fluids.

“The presence of synthetic compounds such as glycol ethers 2026 and the assortment of other organic components is explained as the result of direct mixing of hydraulic fracturing fluids with ground water in the Pavillion gas field,” the draft report states. “Alternative explanations were carefully considered.”

The agency’s findings could be a turning point in the heated national debate about whether contamination from fracking is happening, and are likely to shape how the country regulates and develops natural gas resources in the Marcellus Shale and across the Eastern Appalachian states.

Some of the findings in the report also directly contradict longstanding arguments by the drilling industry for why the fracking process is safe: that hydrologic pressure would naturally force fluids down, not up; that deep geologic layers provide a watertight barrier preventing the movement of chemicals towards the surface; and that the problems with the cement and steel barriers around gas wells aren’t connected to fracking.

Environmental advocates greeted today’s report with a sense of vindication and seized the opportunity to argue for stronger federal regulation of fracking.

“No one can accurately say that there is ‘no risk’ where fracking is concerned,” wrote Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, on her blog. “This draft report makes obvious that there are many factors at play, any one of which can go wrong. Much stronger rules are needed to ensure that well construction standards are stronger and reduce threats to drinking water.”

A spokesman for EnCana, the gas company that owns the Pavillion wells, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In an email exchange after the EPA released preliminary water test data two weeks ago , the spokesman, Doug Hock, denied that the company’s actions were to blame for the pollution and suggested it was naturally caused.

“Nothing EPA presented suggests anything has changed since August of last year — the science remains inconclusive in terms of data, impact, and source,” Hock wrote. “It is also important to recognize the importance of hydrology and geology with regard to the sampling results in the Pavillion Field. The field consists of gas-bearing zones in the near subsurface, poor general water quality parameters and discontinuous water-bearing zones.”

The EPA’s findings immediately triggered what is sure to become a heated political debate as members of Congress consider afresh proposals to regulate fracking. After a phone call with EPA chief Lisa Jackson this morning, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., told a Senate panel that he found the agency’s report on the Pavillion-area contamination “offensive.” Inhofe’s office had challenged the EPA’s investigation in Wyoming last year, accusing the agency of bias.

Residents began complaining of fouled water near Pavillion in the mid-1990s, and the problems appeared to get worse around 2004. Several residents complained that their well water turned brown shortly after gas wells were fracked nearby, and, for a time, gas companies operating in the area supplied replacement drinking water to residents.

Beginning in 2008, the EPA took water samples from resident’s drinking water wells, finding hydrocarbons and traces of contaminants that seemed like they could be related to fracking . In 2010, another round of sampling confirmed the contamination, and the EPA, along with federal health officials, cautioned residents not to drink their water and to ventilate their homes when they bathed because the methane in the water could cause an explosion.

To confirm their findings, EPA investigators drilled two water monitoring wells to 1,000 feet. The agency released data from these test wells in November that confirmed high levels of carcinogenic chemicals such as benzene, and a chemical compound called 2 Butoxyethanol, which is known to be used in fracking.

Still, the EPA had not drawn conclusions based on the tests and took pains to separate its groundwater investigation in Wyoming from the national controversy around hydraulic fracturing. Agriculture, drilling, and old pollution from waste pits left by the oil and gas industry were all considered possible causes of the contamination.

In the report released today, the EPA said that pollution from 33 abandoned oil and gas waste pits — which are the subject of a separate cleanup program — are indeed responsible for some degree of shallow groundwater pollution in the area. Those pits may be the source of contamination affecting at least 42 private water wells in Pavillion. But the pits could not be blamed for contamination detected in the water monitoring wells 1,000 feet underground.

That contamination, the agency concluded, had to have been caused by fracking.

The EPA’s findings in Wyoming are specific to the region’s geology; the Pavillion-area gas wells were fracked at shallower depths than many of the wells in the Marcellus shale and elsewhere.

Investigators tested the cement and casing of the gas wells and found what they described as “sporadic bonding” of the cement in areas immediately above where fracking took place. The cement barrier meant to protect the well bore and isolate the chemicals in their intended zone had been weakened and separated from the well, the EPA concluded.

The report also found that hydrologic pressure in the Pavillion area had pushed fluids from deeper geologic layers towards the surface. Those layers were not sufficient to provide a reliable barrier to contaminants moving upward, the report says.

Throughout its investigation in Wyoming, The EPA was hamstrung by a lack of disclosure about exactly what chemicals had been used to frack the wells near Pavillion. EnCana declined to give federal officials a detailed breakdown of every compound used underground. The agency relied instead on more general information supplied by the company to protect workers’ health.

Hock would not say whether EnCana had used 2 BE, one of the first chemicals identified in Pavillion and known to be used in fracking, at its wells in Pavillion. But he was dismissive of its importance in the EPA’s findings. “There was a single detection of 2-BE among all the samples collected in the deep monitoring wells. It was found in one sample by only one of three labs,” he wrote in his reply to ProPublica two weeks ago. “Inconsistency in detection and non-repeatability shouldn’t be construed as fact.”

The EPA’s draft report will undergo a public review and peer review process, and is expected to be finali
zed by spring.