WASHINGTON — Coming on the heels of another rebuke this past weekend from the public editor of The New York Times — the second such admonishment issued by the paper’s ombudsman in just the past two weeks — Times reporter Ian Urbina today filed the latest installment in his ongoing and increasingly controversial series attacking natural gas, this time borrowing research from the anti-shale Environmental Working Group (EWG) and a well-known opponent of oil and natural gas in an attempt to blame hydraulic fracturing for contributing to the contamination of a single water well nearly 30 years ago in West Virginia.
Notably, the EWG press release today announcing the results of its year-long, Park Foundation-funded “investigation” of the same exact well was sent two hours before the Times posted its story online – suggesting either that a mistake was made in coordinating the release with the Times, or that EWG wanted to ensure the role it played in influencing the story was properly acknowledged. Either way, the piece itself relies on poor, and at times conflicting, records and accounts to arrive at what appears to be the Times’ firm conclusion that fracturing technology “in fact” caused contamination. The reporter also draws heavily on an after-action report of the “WV-17” well from the mid-1980s written by EPA contractor Carla Greathouse, a long-time opponent of the oil and natural gas industry and a source Urbina has used previously in this series without ever mentioning her prior work and reports targeting the industry.
Lee Fuller, executive director of Energy In Depth and an engineer with more than 30 years’ experience in the industry, issued the following statement:
“We’re talking about a technology that’s been deployed more than 1.2 million times in more than 25 states over the course of more than 60 years. I think it says an awful lot about fracturing’s record of safety that the best these guys could come up with after studying the issue for an entire year is a single, disputed case from 30 years ago that state regulators at the time believe had nothing to do with fracturing. Three decades later, the technology today is better than it’s ever been, the regulations are broader and more stringent, and the imperative of getting this right, so that we can take full advantage of the historic opportunities made possible by shale, has never been more apparent. Despite the Times’ best efforts, this story does not prove that hydraulic fracturing had anything to do with the contamination of a water well 30 years ago.”
Both the EWG paper and the Times story focus on a well drilled in Jackson Co., W.V. in 1982, using old reproductions of completion reports accessed from microfiche to argue that fracturing must have contaminated the well since records indicate it was properly cased and drilled to depths below the water table. But according to a letter sent in 1987 by West Virginia’s Department of Energy specifically referencing the WV-17 well, the actual cause of any alleged issue may have been related to something entirely different.
According to Ted Streit, then the state’s deputy director of inspection and enforcement, neither regulators nor industry had known back then that a formation commonly fractured for its oil and natural gas resources – the Pittsburg sandstone – actually contained potable water resources in some parts of Jackson County. From Mr. Streit’s letter:
I would like to point out that WV Code 22B-1-20 requires an operator to cement a string of casing 20 feet below all fresh water zones. At the time the permit was issued concerning this well, the Division [of Oil and Gas] had no knowledge that the Pittsburg sand was a fresh water source. This is because in certain areas oil and gas is produced from the Pittsburg. With this case however, the division discovered the problem and took the following steps to remedy the situation: 1) We had a geologist map the Pittsburg sand in the Roane and Jackson country area so that our permits group and enforcement group knew where that sand could be found. 2) We required every well drilled in the area to have casing cemented up over the Pittsburg sand.
According to Greg Wrightstone, a geologist with decades of experience completing wells in West Virginia: “My hunch is that the operator had an idea about trying a completion in the Pittsburgh sand. We saw small shows out of it from time to time back then. They may have drilled through it, fractured it, got nothing back, and then just gave up on it and drilled down to do a standard Berea/shale completion. If that was the case and a neighbor was using the Pittsburg sandstone as a water zone, then of course there could be elements of the fracturing fluid in it because that was the zone being fractured.”
EID is currently working with producers in the state to acquire and analyze whatever records might still be available relevant to this issue nearly 30 years after the WV-17 well was drilled.
Although characterizing the WV-17 well as a “clear case of drinking water contamination from fracking” in a quote provided to the Times, EWG lawyer Dusty Horwitt adopts a more measured tone in his actual paper, admitting in one section (page 8) that “it is unclear” how fluids could have accessed the well. In another section (page 13), EWG concedes that the West Virginia-based laboratory commissioned to investigate WV-17 “did not conclude that hydraulic fracturing caused the contamination …” And in its press release, EWG admits that “it is possible that another stage of the drilling process [and not hydraulic fracturing] caused the problem.”
Finally, the Times story pulls extensively from a 1987 report written by well-known oil and gas opponent Carla Greathouse, whom Urbina actually credits with giving this story its start. But according to comments published by the American Petroleum Institute (API) contemporaneous with that report, Ms. Greathouse’s work suffered from a “lack of thoroughness” owing to the contractor’s failure “to find or disclose a substantial number of the administrative and enforcement actions by the state agencies.” API also said at the time that it wasn’t able “to find a single case where EPA’s contractor contacted the operator involved to determine their side of the story.”
According to Ms. Greathouse, one of the goals of her 1987 report was to convince EPA to start regulating things such as drill cuttings, pipe scale and produced water as “hazardous wastes,” with an eye on preventing them from being disposed of in a manner consistent with industrial waste rules under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). After reviewing the Greathouse report, EPA arrived at precisely the opposite conclusion, issuing a report to Congress in 1988 stating that “regulation as hazardous wastes under Subtitle C was not warranted and that these wastes could be controlled under other federal and state regulatory programs.” Ms. Greathouse later told CBS News that the decision was “a very difficult pill to swallow.”