December 14, 2011
Environmental Protection Agency Strikes Gas! That should have been the headline last week that instead ran as “EPA says fracking may be polluting groundwater.” Here’s the story: the EPA says tests it conducted in Pavillion, Wyoming “indicate that ground water in the aquifer contains compounds likely associated with gas production practices, including hydraulic fracturing.” However, it turns out that the EPA drilled two monitoring wells to some 900 feet – much deeper than water wells which are usually at about 300 feet – and indeed found hydrocarbons. In short, they drilled into the natural gas reservoir that has long attracted industry producers. It may the single most productive moment in EPA history.
The United States has stumbled upon an enormous gift – almost unlimited supplies of natural gas -- that are available because of advances in technology. Improved methods of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, used to recover hitherto “trapped” hydrocarbons in certain rock formations, mean that natural gas could be substituted for other fuels currently used to generate electricity or heat our homes.
This could accomplish what many presidents have promised but none has delivered – important strides towards energy independence. Though natural gas cannot easily displace our use of oil for transportation, it can dampen that demand at the margin. Approximately one third of our oil is consumed by 18-wheelers; conversion of truck and lighter vehicle fleets to natural gas would take some time and investment but would leave our air cleaner and our pocketbooks fatter.
Not since the Salem
witch trials has there
been such an uproar
about an imagined threat.
Natural gas is abundant, cheap and environment-friendly compared to most alternatives. It produces electricity with 60 percent less CO2 emissions than coal. Notwithstanding those clean air credentials, environmentalists oppose this newfound energy opulence at every point. Specifically, they see dangers from fracking- a process that has been in use for decades – even though there has been almost no actual evidence of contamination. Not since the Salem witch trials has there been such an uproar about an imagined threat. The good news is that we’re not tossing heavily shackled gas drillers down wells and judging them innocent only if they swim to the surface. The bad news is that the opposition to fracking is just about that scientific.
Which is why the green lobby pounced on the EPA announcement like slavering Dobermans thrown a dead chicken. Steve Jones, an environmentalist with the Wyoming Outdoor Council, admitted as much saying, "This is an important first indication there are potential problems with fracking that can impact domestic water wells.” Imagine -- all the headlines, marches, protests and legal actions to date have been based on…not much.
Encana, the company that is actually producing natural gas through fracking in the Wyoming region under study, has just issued a rebuttal to the EPA’s lengthy report, spotlighting several inaccuracies and mistakes. In addition to noting that the EPA had in effect discovered natural gas by drilling into a natural gas reservoir, the company faulted the EPA’s “discovery” of various several man-made chemicals in the deep wells. Curiously, the agency found the same chemicals in the so-called “blank” water samples— the “ultra purified water commonly used in testing to ensure no contamination from field sampling procedures.” As Encana points out, the conclusion suggests “problems associated with EPA methodology”. No kidding.
Encana further complained that the EPA ignored historical evidence of naturally occurring contaminants in the area. They claim that the USGS reported about poor water quality in the 1880s and again in 1959 (preceding the start of drilling in the 1960s) due to “high concentrations of naturally occurring sulfate, total dissolved solids and pH levels which commonly exceed state and federal drinking water standards.” They also fault the EPA for not providing any “qualified” third party objective review of the report.
on imported oil
cost us $37 billion
in November alone.
President Obama’s EPA is clearly on a mission – it perceives the preceding administration as having been slack in its stewardship of our environment and wants to make up for lost time. The agency’s aggressiveness and indifference to the economic cost of its policies was highlighted when President Obama stepped in front of EPA chief Lisa Jackson’s efforts to curb ozone levels. Mr. Obama explained that "I have continued to underscore the importance of reducing regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty, particularly as our economy continues to recover."
Unhappily, that was but a brief respite from the EPA’s all-out assault on our energy and power providers. Reasonable energy policy should be balancing the agency’s program against the nation’s economic needs, but we have no energy policy. This is not a failing unique to the Obama administration – many presidents have refused to make any tough decisions that could lessen our reliance on imported oil – a reliance that cost us $37 billion in November alone.
Mr. Obama, though, has new tools available, abundant natural gas that could actually strengthen our security and brighten our economic future. Just as he did on ozone standards, Mr. Obama should demand a fair-minded hearing of fracking. Lisa Jackson said at her appointment hearings, “If I am confirmed, I will administer with science as my guide... political appointees will not compromise the integrity of EPA’s technical experts to advance particular regulatory outcomes.” So -- maybe Ms. Jackson would agree to redo the tests?