Stanford Scientists Find Fracking Linked to Groundwater Contamination in Pavillion, Wyoming
As the fracking industry tries to expand internationally, being promoted as a so-called clean bridge fuel, it is increasingly clear the industry has not one, but two, Achilles heels.
The first is the release of the potent greenhouse gas, methane. The second is water pollution and the threat the controversial technique poses to drinking water.
Both areas are highly disputed, but nearly every week new research reveals new evidence of harm by fracking.
A new study by scientists from Stanford University in California, published in Environmental Science & Technology, has found that fracking operations near Pavillion, Wyoming “have had clear impact to underground sources of drinking water.”
The operations near Pavillion have long been contentious. Back in 2008, the town made headlines when local residents started complaining of a foul taste and odor in their drinking water, leading to an investigation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In 2011, the EPA issued a preliminary report which linked shallow fracking to toxic compounds in aquifers, but no action was taken by the agency, leading to one of the co-authors of the new study, Rob Jackson, professor at the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences at the University to argue that the “EPA has consistently walked away from investigations where people and the environment appear to have been harmed.”
The agency now maintains that since June 2013, “the EPA and the state both agreed that the best path forward in advancing the understanding of groundwater issues in the Pavillion area included EPA’s support for the state’s additional investigation of pits, production wells and drinking water.”
However, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has now advised area residents to avoid bathing, cooking or drinking with water from their taps.
The new Stanford study goes beyond the 2011 EPA report to document not only the occurrence of fracking chemicals in underground sources of drinking water but also their impact on that water that is making it unsafe for use.
According to the university: “The research paints a picture of unsafe practices including the dumping of drilling and production fluids containing diesel fuel, high chemical concentrations in unlined pits and a lack of adequate cement barriers to protect groundwater.”
“This is a wake-up call,” said lead author Dominic DiGiulio, a visiting scholar at the Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, who used to work for the EPA. “It’s perfectly legal to inject stimulation fluids into underground drinking water resources. This may be causing widespread impacts on drinking water resources.”
DiGiulio argues that “Geologic and groundwater conditions at Pavillion are not unique in the Rocky Mountain region. This suggests there may be widespread impact to underground sources of drinking water as a result of unconventional oil and gas extraction.”
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Moderates Feeling the Heat<p>If elected, Mr. Biden has vowed to stop new drilling for oil and gas on federal land and in federal waters and to rejoin the 2015 Paris climate accord that President Donald Trump gave notice of quitting. He would reinstate Obama-era regulations of greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, the largest component of natural gas.</p><p>The Biden climate platform also states that all federal infrastructure investments and federal permits would need to be assessed for their climate impacts. Analysts say such a test could impede future LNG plants and pipelines, though not those that already have federal approval. </p><p>Climate change activists who pushed for that language say much depends on who would have oversight of federal agencies that regulate the industry. Some are wary of Biden's reliance on advice from Obama-era officials, including former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who is now on the board of Southern Company, a utility, and a former Obama environmental aide, Heather Zichal, who has served on the board of Cheniere Energy, an LNG exporter. </p>
The Push for U.S. Fuel Exports<p>As vice president, Biden was part of an administration that pushed hard for global climate action while also promoting U.S. oil and gas exports to its allies and trading partners. As fracking boomed, Obama ended a 40-year ban on crude oil exports. In Europe, LNG was touted both as an alternative to coal and as strategic competition with Russian pipelines.</p><p>That much, at least, continued with President Trump. Under Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the agency referred to liquified U.S. hydrocarbons as "<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/29/us/freedom-gas-energy-department.html" target="_blank">freedom gas</a>."</p><p>Mr. Trump has also championed the interests of coal, oil, and gas while denigrating the findings of government climate scientists. He rejected the Paris accord as unfair to the U.S. and detrimental to its economy, but has offered no alternative path to emissions cuts. </p><p>Still, Trump's foreign policy has not always served the LNG industry: Tariffs on foreign steel drove up pipeline costs, and a trade war with China stayed the hand of Chinese LNG importers wary of reliance on U.S. suppliers. </p><p>Even his regulatory rollbacks could be a double-edged sword. By relaxing curbs last month on methane leaks, the U.S. has ceded ground to European regulators who are drafting emissions standards that LNG producers are watching closely. "That's a precursor of fights that will be fought in all the rest of the developed world," says Mr. Hutchison. </p><p>Indeed, some oil-and-gas exporters had urged the Trump administration not to abandon the tougher rules, since they undercut their claim to offer a cleaner-burning way of producing heat and electricity. "U.S. LNG is not going to be able to compete in a world that's focused on methane emissions and intensity," says Erin Blanton, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. </p>
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