By Jeff Tollefson of Nature magazine
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sparked a firestorm in December last year when it released a draft report suggesting that the use of hydraulic fracturing — or 'fracking' — to extract natural gas had contaminated groundwater near Pavillion, Wyoming. Industry officials have long denied that fracking affects groundwater, and Pavillion has become the first high-profile test of this claim. On 26 September, the US Geological Survey (USGS) released data showing the presence of groundwater contamination in the region. Although the data would seem to support the EPA’s assessment — as does an independent analysis released by environmental groups this week — the survey did not seek to determine the source of the contamination. Nature examines the on-going debate and how it relates to broader questions about groundwater contamination from fracking across the United States.
How did this investigation begin?
After local landowners complained about the smell and taste of their water, the EPA began in 2009 to analyze the groundwater outside Pavillion. The agency tested the water in the shallow wells that tap the groundwater above the 169 gas-producing wells in the field; in two municipal wells in the town; and in several surface and deep wells that it drilled for monitoring purposes. It found evidence of contamination in both the shallow and deep wells, and attributed the shallow contamination to the 33 or so nearby surface pits used to store drilling wastes. The pits could not, however, explain the contamination in the deeper groundwater.
What is the evidence that fracking contaminated the deep groundwater?
A range of hydrocarbons showed up in the deep wells, as did some synthetic organic chemicals associated with fracking fluids and drilling activities. The EPA also found high pH levels that could be explained by potassium hydroxide, which was used as a solvent at the site. The agency also analyzed the evolution of the pollution plume to determine that groundwater seems to be migrating upward, suggesting that the source of contamination came from the gas production zone rather than the surface pits.
Officials with both industry and the state of Wyoming questioned the EPA’s data as well as its interpretation, arguing that some hydrocarbons are to be expected through natural migration from the gas field. The state then asked the USGS to conduct a new analysis and provide the data to the state. The USGS provided those data last week; it also sent samples to the EPA, which is conducting its own analysis.
What do the latest results suggest?
The USGS provided only the raw data and no interpretation. A spokeswoman for the EPA has said that the results are consistent with the agency's findings, and an analysis by environmental groups released this week confirmed that. A scientist who has investigated possible contamination at other sites, Rob Jackson of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, says that multiple lines of evidence are certainly “suggestive” of fracking as a source of contamination.
Does this settle the debate?
No. Encana Corporation, an energy producer based in Calgary, Canada, that has wells in the field near Pavillion, maintains that neither the EPA draft report nor the USGS results provide any proof that drilling operations are to blame.