Industry: What happens in Wyoming doesn’t happen in Texas


Oil and gas industry leaders are pushing back today against an EPA draft report that linked hydraulic fracturing with water contamination in Wyoming by insisting that what happened in that state is light years away from drilling being done in Texas, New York and other parts of the country.

In its draft report yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency said it had discovered synthetic chemicals associated with gas production and hydraulic fracturing fluids inside deep water wells in Pavillion, Wyo.

It was the first time a federal agency had linked water contamination with the hydraulic fracturing process, which involves blasting mixtures of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to break up dense shale rock and unlock trapped oil and natural gas.

But energy analysts and regulators say the study is fundamentally flawed — making a hypothetical case that contamination can be pinned on fracturing, instead of a causal one. And they stress that the kind of drilling done at the gas field in west central Wyoming is far different than the work happening elsewhere in the U.S.

In Pavillion, fracturing took place both in and below the drinking water aquifer and very close to drinking water wells — conditions that the EPA noted are not common elsewhere. Some of the 169 gas production wells in the area were fractured at points just 1,220 feet below the ground.

By contrast, in South Texas, energy companies are extracting natural gas from the Eagle Ford shale formation at depths ranging from 4,000 to 14,000 feet below the surface. In that region, the gas-rich shale is separated from the aquifers above it by thousands of feet of dense rock.

That’s true in other parts of the country, too.

Nationwide, most shale formations are far deeper than aquifers that typically contain potable water only to depths of about 600 to 700 feet. For instance, the gas-producing zone of the Barnett shale lies at around 8,000 feet. In the Marcellus shale that stretches across Pennsylvania and New York, the gas-rich region is generally 6,500 feet down.

Analysts at the Houston-based energy investment bank Tudor Pickering Holt stressed that “the proximity of gas zones to the aquifer” in Pavillion, Wyo., is “not common in modern plays.” And they noted that the Wyoming drilling was a “unique situation” with the gas reservoir just below the fresh water aquifer.

The issues there likely stem from surface casing in wells not being set deep enough and therefore not extending throughout the aquifer that extended down at least 250 feet in Pavillion, said TPH analyst Dave Pursell. Casing, meanwhile, was typically set at just 150 to 175 feet, leaving some of the well surface inadequately isolated from the aquifer.

These aren’t “best practices,” Pursell said. “I can’t defend a shallow well that doesn’t have surface casing across an aquifer zone. That is a level of protection that is critical to drinking water, particularly in an instance where you know the reservoir is in close proximity to the aquifer.”

The risk is that “if you have a leak in your production casing, you’ve created an avenue for communication between the reservoir and the aquifer,” Pursell noted.

If the possible contamination in Wyoming is ultimately traced back to poor well design and inadequate casing, it could spur industry to speed up its development of new and better standards governing those issues, Pursell said.

Kevin Book, an analyst with ClearView Energy in Washington, D.C., predicted that gas producers and oilfield service companies will continue to highlight how well design and fracturing techniques vary from state to state.

“Well designs vary with basin characteristics,” Book noted, “and the important question is whether a well provides a sufficient barrier between a hydrocarbon bearing formation and surrounding water resources.”

Regulators and producers in Texas already are highlighting the distinctions between what happened in Wyoming and the kind of drilling and fracturing taking place in the Lone Star State.

Elizabeth Ames Jones, the chairman of the Railroad Commission that regulates oil and gas production in the state noted that “the geology of Texas is different.”

“Hydraulic fracturing does not go on close to the surface here and it would be impossible to migrate up from miles below the earth to a water table,” she said. “”We have stringent rules on well construction and extra precautions must be taken near water tables. There is no reason to apply this EPA finding in Wyoming — regardless of what the results end up proving to be — in Texas.”

Jones also said the different geologies of Wyoming and Texas are fresh evidence that state-based regulation of hydraulic fracturing is best. “This is exactly why one size oversight does not fit all,” she said.

But Les Shephard, head of the Sustainable Energy Research Institute at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said it is unwise to rule out contamination from ever occurring in Texas because of the depth of the shale rock formations energy companies are tapping.

There is a problem with using words like “impossible” or “never,” when data later shows contamination may have occurred, Shephard said. The result is “you find that you’ve lost a lot of credibility,” Shephard said.

Tracy Idell Hamilton of the San Antonio Express-News contributed to this report.

Jennifer Dlouhy

16 Responses

  1. Joe Friday says:

    @Sharon – This is nothing like what happened in Weatherford. The gas found in the water wells there was chemically different from the gas being produced from the Barnett. But, why let the facts interfere with a good story, right?

  2. Rob says:

    I’ve been saying for years that the increased shale rock pressures on the surface casing is the problem.

  3. Dollar says:

    @Dan X. McGraw

    You say ” TxLoanguy, why would the EPA want to stop drilling? ”

    I can’t believe you have to ask that question.

    The EPA is being used to implement back door cap and trade. What Obama could not accomplish through legislation, is being done through regulation.

    I believe it was 2009, when the Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gas fell under the Clean Air Act, and that ruling gave the EPA authority to regulate CO2 emissions.

    In other words, the EPA is now combating global warming.

    Of course Obama’s administration is trying to stop oil and gas production.

    Obama said in his state of the union address two years ago, that oil was ” yesterday’s energy ” . And DOE secretary Chu is on record saying that energy prices will have to rise for alternative fuels to become economically feasible.

    And how else do your drive up energy prices ? How bout restricting and even cutting back production of oil and gas ?? Or making production so expensive that that solar and wind become competitive ?

    Has this thought never crossed your mind ?

    Do you really believe that Dr. James Hansen of NASA, got arrested in front of the White House protesting Keystone XL , because he was concerned about a little oil being spilled in Nebraska ? If you do ,then you terribly naive.

    Outside of Al Gore, Hansen is Mr . Global Warming . He hates CO2 emissions with a passion and says the Canadian tar sands are death for the planet.

    You think he and his peers might want to restrict or outright stop oil drilling and production ?

    Naaah !! That could not be the real motives…………. pfffttt

    And if you think this fracing issue is really about fear of fracing contaminating water aquifers, then you are equally naive here.

    Because what scares the greenies in New York City ( and the New York Times ) is not fracing, its these huge reserves of natural gas and oil that are being discovered and produced by fracing.

    They were hoping that Peak Oil was real. They thought things were looking good, the Earth was running out of oil.

    But lo and behold, American ingenuity threw them a curve ball.

    And this is why they are opposing EVERY oil and gas drilling or infrastructure project. They find every possible reason to stop every project, whether its pipelines or drilling or refinerys … you name it.

    And we have a president who is on these peoples side, which should be obvious to anyone with a half a brain. They helped him get elected. If you don’t believe that, just re-elect this guy and see what he does when he’s not running for re-election. It will be all out war on the oil/gas industry.

    And the same president is in charge of the EPA. Lisa Jackson works for Obama, what part of that do you not understand.

    And you ask , Dan McGraw ……. why the EPA would want to oppose oil and gas production ??

    DUH !!!

  4. Tim Ruggiero says:

    I’ve been hearing that “We don’t do it that way” for years. Yeah, you do. Fracking is fracking. But fracking is not necessarily the issue-it’s the drilling process itself combined with careless, arrogant operators that are creating the problems. Ms. Jones needs to see that the mandate of the TRRC is not to be the cheerleaders for Industry but rather the regulators. Jones is pandering for votes and support for her senate campaign and her commentary about ‘job creation’ and bashing Obama/EPA is nothing more than the usual deflection most politicians play. Here’s some ‘job creating’ facts for you- if you really believe Exxon’s claims that the building of the Keystone XL will create “Hundreds of thousands of jobs” (Exxon Engineer Artis Brown) and Obama’s ratings being in the toilet, unemployment at 9% and growing, if this job creation number were true, one would think Obama couldn’t sign off on that fast enough.

    Sincerely, Environmental Whacko Registered Republican

  5. Deepwater Engineer says:

    Just like I said yesterday. Surface casing not deep enough to protect the drinking water aquifers. Shame on the operator and shame on the regulatory authority in Wyoming. I am not saying that the frac did or did not cause the contamination, because I don’t have the details. However, nobody should be designing wells with the productive reservoir in the same hole section as the freshwater aquifer, especially since they were so close to each other. If you can’t design the well to protect the aquifer, don’t drill the well. What a joke.

  6. Jp says:

    Just shows how sneaky the EPA really is. They can’t be trusted at all.

  7. Trail_Tramp says:

    EPA = Extreme Political Activism

    Shell has spent $4 billion in an effort to access an estimated 27 billion barrels of oil off the coast of Alaska. The EPA denied their request again, this time based on the nit-picking point that in their environmental impact statement, they forgot to include the greenhouse gas emmissions of any ice-breaking vessels that might be required.

  8. Betty says:

    Drill Baby Drill neo cons might need to go and have a nice big pitcher of that contaminated water ….right?? Go on..have a big glass full of that contaminated well water …or have two. You trust your Gas Gods so much…have a glass or two.

  9. Trail_Tramp says:

    Stop me if you’ve heard this before… “The critical barrier for the protection of fresh water aquifers, in both frac’d and unfrac’d wells, is the cement job on the surface casing.”

  10. JimH says:

    Lets face it, the Obama regime is going to do all it can to stop oil production in the U.S. “If it’s not green, it’s mean” is their attitude and they will use every tool at their disposal to shut down energy production in this country. When you experience rolling blackouts next year you can thank Obama and the EPA.

  11. Oil Patch 41 says:

    Dan X – Obama and his EPA crooks are trying to ruin the US oil industry so they can push their “GREEN ENERGY” cr@$.

  12. apmech says:

    Earthquakes, pollution of ground water, perhaps not so far in the future destruction of sub strata aquifers…but hey, the oil and gas industry says its all good, don’t worry…

  13. Don says:

    Tree-Huggers desperately scrambling like crazy to find a “spotted owl” event to shut down this new O&G technology.

  14. txloanguy says:

    The rampaging EPA has been trying to stop all drilling. They wanted to find SOME water contamination so they could control ALL oil activity. Facts have nothing to do with the EPA decisions.